Hello, everyone! If there’s one aspect of life brought into crystal-clear focus by the pandemic, it’s the disparity between the homes of the wealthy, and the homes of everyone else. While the majority of Americans spent the quarantine times stuck in cramped apartments or small homes, America’s elites spent their pandemic in mansions, penthouses, and palatial estates. It became something of a meme to watch rich people lament being forced to lounge in their million-dollar homes while the rest of America worried about foreclosures and eviction. In today’s insane urban and suburban housing market, where the price of a three bedroom house, once considered a starter home, could cost anywhere from $300,000 to $800,000, watching fabulously wealthy people show us their second and third homes has become just another form of torturous entertainment.
One of my favorite YouTube channels to watch at the moment is Architectural Digest, specifically their video series called Open Door. Featuring the homes of celebrities like Tommy Hilfiger, Adam Levine, and most recently Kirsten Dunst, the series takes viewers on tours of Hollywood’s million-dollar abodes so that, as the website says, these celebs can “take us through the design techniques and innovations that make each home unique.” Superficially, these videos are about design, but what they’re really about is wealth. In one episode, Kirsten Dunst’s interior designer Jane Hallworth casually mentions the 18th century secretary desk that Dunst bought from Hovdala Castle, one of the oldest castles in Sweden. “You loved her immediately, but she was not inexpensive because of her provenance,” says Hallworth. “It was a really great investment.”
How much Dunst spent on that desk is not included in the video, probably because the amount is, as they used to say, too obscene to print. But the vintage Frits Henningsen chair she calls the “sexiest chair she ever sat in”, of which 50 were ever made, probably cost at least $8000, according to the price of the knockoffs for sale online. And who even knows what she spent on her Victor Dinovi coffee table, or her various other vintage furniture that she acquired from the antiques shop JF Chen, which won’t even list its prices on its website. The episode is about showcasing Dunst’s unique style, not about breaking down her budget, and because of that you won’t hear Dunst talk about the price of the pieces in her home, or talk about how much she spent bringing Jackie Onassis’ door from her apartment in NYC to her home in Los Angeles. To do so would probably be considered crass. But what’s more crass? Talking about wealth, or pretending it doesn’t exist?
Architectural Digest’s videos focus on the beauty of luxury homes, and there is nothing more damaging to the idea of luxury than talking about how much it costs to attain it. To hear Nina Dobrev talking about the Ilve stove that she shipped from Italy, and realize that its at least $6000 sticker price, combined with the hundreds of dollars in shipping costs, costs about the same as a used Toyota Corolla, would probably take the “fun” out of the video. Talking about the money behind the wealth takes the fun out of any conversation. Everyone wants to be rich, right? We just don’t want to talk about how much being rich actually costs.
In a similar vein, The New York Times has a real estate column called The Hunt. While the NYT has never claimed to be a paper for the masses, its house hunting column, featuring headlines like “They Had $1 Million For a House In Queens” demonstrate exactly which income class the paper is designed for. In each column, the featured buyer or buyers weigh the pros and cons of spending $2 million on various 2-bedroom apartments in Brooklyn, discuss their desires for a walkable neighborhood, or emphasize their hope for a newer building with amenities like lounges, fitness rooms, and screening rooms. What’s crazy about this column is that it simultaneously represents the insane reality of the housing market in NYC, while also reading like a work of fantasy. The column’s inclusion of these buyer’s budgets, ranging from the hundreds of thousands to the millions, is presented with staggering nonchalance. And for every reader who may be wondering how the hell these couples can afford such sums, the columns hint at an answer, genteelly mentioning savings accounts, sold properties, and jobs in “tech” and “finance,” while never deliberately mentioning that the the column as a whole is devoted almost entirely to the home-buying experiences of the rich.
In another era, The Hunt column would be a piece of satire. Paying $1 million per room for a two-bedroom apartment is a sick joke. The median annual income of all workers over 15 in the U.S was $41,535 in 2020. For a worker making that median wage, even buying a 400,000 house with 10% down would require having an entire year’s salary in savings, a feat that would take years, if not decades, for that median income worker to accomplish. Most Americans have less than $5000 in savings. So a house-hunting column devoted to home-buyers who have enough in their savings to comfortably afford million dollar homes and apartments doesn’t just seem out of touch, it seems deliberately exclusionary and elitist. And yet, I can’t stop reading these columns, just like I can’t stop watching those Architectural Digest videos. Getting to experience millionaire luxury from the view of my 650 square foot apartment, and comparing the cost of a celebrity’s vintage lamp to the amount of money I spend on three months of rent, is as painful as it is exhilarating.
Everyone wants to be rich, but few people ever will be. Do these videos give us a lifestyle to aspire to, or a taste of a dream that we know will never come true? As we come to terms with the true extent of inequality in America, and the knowledge that the wealth gap only increased during the worst stretch of the pandemic, it seems that we take comfort not in our own lives, but in the lives of the rich. The extreme wealth of America’s 1 %, and their desire to increase that wealth at any costs, is the worm burrowing into the American apple of shared prosperity. But we are willing to ignore the worm, to excuse it even, for a glimpse into that other stratosphere. The Internet jokes that it’s time to “eat the rich,” but deep down, we all want the luxury and security that radiates from these displays of conspicuous wealth, even if we know that this unrestrained wealth is what’s killing us. And as for me? Well, I’ll keep watching those AD videos, because if I can’t buy my own house, at least I can imagine living in their’s.