Why we can’t re­sist os­ten­ta­tion.

What, ex­actly, is be­hind our love of all things op­u­lent and over-the-top?

ELLE (Canada) - - Insider - By Guy Saddy

Iam ad­mir­ing a ham­burger. Well, a photo of one. And it is lit­er­ally cov­ered in gold.

The creator of this spec­tac­u­lar sand­wich is the rather charm­less-sound­ing Honky Tonk diner. Lo­cated in Lon­don, it’s “an Amer­i­can-in­spired restau­rant”—al­beit with a swisher ac­cent and, one as­sumes, prices that would be more at home in Dubai, if not an al­ter­na­tive uni­verse. But a quick re­view of its other (far more rea­son­able) menu items re­veals the “Glam­burger”— yes, that’s what it’s called—for what it truly is.

Served, no doubt, with a lib­eral sprin­kling of chutz­pah and a side or­der of P.T. Bar­num-style savvy, the Glam­burg­er­was cre­ated as a pro­mo­tional tool by the restau­rant last year. It was laugh­able in its ex­cess, a gour­mand’s night­mare and a glut­ton’s wet dream. But it was also the most ex­pen­sive ham­burger in the world, which is why it was made and why it made head­lines.

Like most ham­burg­ers, it con­sisted pri­mar­ily of a ground-meat patty slathered in condi­ments and clev­erly en­cased be­tween two halves of a sin­gle bun. Un­like most, this ham­burger cost $2,250 (not in­clud­ing tip).

Here’s what you got: 227 grams of Kobe wagyu beef (sea­soned with Hi­malayan salt), 57 grams of New Zealand veni­son, black-truf­fle brie (found in the cen­tre of the patty,

it pro­duces a “liq­uid pocket” when cooked), Cana­dian lob­ster poached in Ira­nian saf­fron, maple-syrup-coated ba­con, a dol­lop of bel­uga caviar and a hick­ory-smoked duck egg. All of it was topped off with a bun that was cov­ered in edi­ble gold leaf. It was, in a word, op­u­lent. Op­u­lence—best de­fined as the os­ten­ta­tious dis­play of wealth—is all around us. Wit­ness the ir­re­deemably vul­gar launch of yet an­other Trump Tower, sky­line-al­ter­ing tes­ta­ments to ques­tion­able taste and ego run amok. Or tune in to the high-pitched 12-cylin­der roar of a pass­ing Fer­rari F12berlinetta, which can be yours for the low, low price of only $430,000 plus your first-born male child. Feel­ing spendy? Why not book the Jewel Suite at the Lotte New York Palace. For $32,500 a night, you can stretch out in your 465-square-me­tre room, com­plete with pri­vate el­e­va­tor, grand pi­ano and maître d’étage ser­vice (what­ever that en­tails).

Mag­a­zines like Robb Re­port keep us up to date with break­ing news from the yacht front, while Ci­gar Afi­cionado does its level best to ad­vise on the most sub­lime way to ac­quire throat can­cer. What’s in your wal­let? The Amer­i­can Ex­press Cen­tu­rion Card, com­monly known as the “Black Card,” has a $5,000 initiation fee, a $2,500 an­nual fee and a re­ported $250,000 yearly spend­ing re­quire­ment. (All in all, a small sum to pay to look suave when you hear the phrase “We don’t take AmEx” over and over again.) Of course, you’ll need a de­cent purse in which to lug around that Black Card and its weighty karma. How about a clas­sic Hermès Birkin? You can score one made from Hi­malayan crocodile for only $560,000—one of the most ex­pen­sive hand­bags ever prod­uced. A par­tic­u­larly swank func­tion calls for an equally posh dress. May we sug­gest a cute lit­tle haute­cou­ture num­ber from Bri­tish de­signer Scott Hen­shall? Back in 2004, Hen­shall cre­ated a dress, worn by ac­tress Sa­man­tha Mumba to the Spi­der­man II pre­miere, that was said to cost $11.7 mil­lion. Haute damn!

To­day, it seems that op­u­lence is more preva­lent than it has ever been be­fore. Why? Op­u­lence sends a mes­sage. With­out ut­ter­ing a word, it tells oth­ers “I’ve ar­rived—now fetch my bags.” But none of this is new.

Lav­ish dis­plays of wealth and con­sump­tion have been part of hu­man his­tory since the pharaohs trimmed their sar­cophagi in gold. De­spite Is­lamic doc­trine for­bid­ding the dec­o­ra­tion of graves, the gleam­ing white mar­ble mau­soleum known as the Taj Ma­hal was hardly de­signed with mod­esty in mind. The baroque era, with its ex­ces­sive or­na­men­ta­tion and ad­dic­tion to gold leaf, gave us such gems as St. John’s Co-Cathe­dral in Malta, an homage to God that is so full of pomp that even He would de­scribe it as overkill. In 1890s Amer­ica, the aptly named “Gilded Age”—the term was coined by Mark Twain, who har­boured a spe­cial dis­dain for ex­cess—saw an ex­plo­sion of new wealth, and names like As­tor, Van­der­bilt, Rock­e­feller and Hearst be­came syn­ony­mous with huge manor-like es­tates. In the 1950s and ’60s, Lib­er­ace, the cel­e­brated pi­anist/showman, cap­ti­vated au­di­ences with shock­ingly outré cos­tumes and a campy flam­boy­ance that makes El­ton John look in­tro­verted by com­par­i­son. (Clos­eted through­out his life, he even­tu­ally died of AIDS-re­lated com­pli­ca­tions; Lib­er­ace was pet­ri­fied of be­ing outed, which serves to re­mind us that the shiny ve­neer of op­u­lence is some­times meant to dis­guise the tor­ment that flows un­der­neath.)

More re­cently, the fig­u­ra­tive off­spring of th­ese con­spic­u­ous char­ac­ters in­clude any­one from arms dealer Ad­nan Khashoggi, who dur­ing the 1980s would spend about $325,000 a day, to Pablo Es­co­bar, the co­caine drug lord who, be­fore he was killed, had amassed a for­tune that placed him sev­enth on the Forbes list of the world’s wealth­i­est peo­ple. Among his pos­ses­sions was a solid gold and di­a­mond-en­crusted Rolex, a zoo fea­tur­ing hip­pos, gi­raffes, ze­bras and ele­phants and an ex­ten­sive art col­lec­tion pop­u­lated with orig­i­nal works by Dalí, Pi­casso and Botero. With rap now less a po­lit­i­cal state­ment and more a com­mer­cial grind, the gold-chain ex­cesses of the 1980s seem quaint—at least when com­pared to hip-hop power cou­ple Jay-Z and Bey­oncé (com­bined net worth: $1.3 bil­lion), who flaunt their wealth with their own pri­vate jet, ex­trav­a­gant rented yachts, homes in New York, the Hamp­tons and L.A. and, just for kicks, the mu­sic-stream­ing ser­vice Ti­dal.

There is a pat­tern here, of sorts. In­ter­est­ingly, it’s of­ten not the As­tors, Van­der­bilts, Rock­e­fellers or Hearsts any­more who feel driven to pa­rade their op­u­lent tastes; to­day, their ex­cesses rarely make the Buz­zFeed rounds. In­stead, it seems as if the worst of­fend­ers are those who have very re­cently come into money. Through their con­spic­u­ous over­con­sump­tion, are they per­haps at­tempt­ing to pur­chase val­i­da­tion along with that $800,000 Bulgari Mag­sonic Son­nerie Tour­bil­lon time­piece?

When it comes to over-the-top ex­trav­a­gance, it would be hard to best Florida-based time-share moguls David h

Op­u­lence sends a mes­sage. With­out ut­ter­ing a word, it tells oth­ers “I’ve ar­rived—now fetch my bags.”

and Jackie Siegel, sub­jects of the doc­u­men­tary The Queen of Ver­sailles (2012). The Siegels live an ex­traor­di­nar­ily lav­ish life that in­cludes build­ing a replica of the fa­mous Palace of Ver­sailles—al­though with an in­door roller rink and bowl­ing al­ley, it cer­tainly isn’t an ex­act replica. Be­gun in 2004, con­struc­tion of the 8,360-square-me­tre “mon­u­ment to bad taste,” as one critic called it, was halted af­ter the 2008 mar­ket crash dev­as­tated the Siegels’ bot­tom line. At one point, Ver­sailles was in fore­clo­sure; it was listed at $130 mil­lion, and there were no tak­ers.

Col­lec­tive de­light at their down­fall was short-lived. The Siegels’ for­tunes have since re­vived and, af­ter a four-year hia­tus, they’ve re­sumed con­struc­tion on Ver­sailles—and once again ex­hib­ited the same kind of hubris that fac­tored into their de­ci­sion to cre­ate it in the first place. When asked why they wanted to start the project, David Siegel an­swered sim­ply, “Be­cause we can.” Al­though not quite “Let them eat cake,” the par­al­lel is un­de­ni­able.

How­ever off-putting this may be, there is some­thing un­de­ni­ably cap­ti­vat­ing about op­u­lence and those who flaunt their wealth. It’s the same voyeuris­tic im­pulse that draws us to shows like Life­styles of the Rich and Fa­mous, World’s Most Ex­pen­sive Homes and House Hun­ters In­ter­na­tional. We are pulled al­most mag­net­i­cally to­ward the out­ra­geous, the ex­treme. Or to the ex­cep­tional— whether ex­cep­tion­ally good or not so good.

In a mem­o­rable New Yorker ar­ti­cle, writer Adam Gop­nik, in try­ing to jus­tify the car­i­ca­ture of sex that Marilyn Mon­roe had be­come, hit upon a much larger truth. “To be very rich or very lovely or very good is in­her­ently in­ter­est­ing, since very­ness of any kind is not part of dai­ly­ness,” he wrote. “Un­hot is this ev­ery­day-ex­is­tence thing, and so we con­tinue to cel­e­brate that same hand­ful who were truly great, or at least im­mensely curvy, and, as long as we do, the small­est drop of their sweat has value.”

Sweat and curves aside, the same could be said about those who push bound­aries of op­u­lence, re­gard­less of out­come. We are in­trigued by the de­sign­ers of im­pos­si­bly tall build­ings like the Burj Khal­ifa and own­ers of yachts large enough to dou­ble as con­ven­tion cen­tres. From the en­dur­ing mys­tique of the Hope Di­a­mond to the odd fas­ci­na­tion with Fabergé eggs and England’s crown jewels, worldly man­i­fes­ta­tions of oth­er­worldly wealth are more in­trigu­ing than re­pel­lent. Even the con­struc­tion of the Florid­ian Ver­sailles, such a laugh­ably ob­scene ode to the Siegels’ bloated self-re­gard, is, at least, in­ter­est­ing... in a freak-show sort of way. Big­ger is not al­ways bet­ter, but it is al­ways big, and very few things are.

So why op­u­lence? Be­cause it is shinier. Be­cause it is bolder. Be­cause its ex­u­ber­ance and ex­trav­a­gance scratch at the lim­its of hu­man achieve­ment. Be­cause it is very.

Mainly, though, be­cause we can.


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