Culture Warrior: The Generosity of Wealthy Men

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If you haven’t seen NBC’s summer drama The Philanthropist, you aren’t alone. The ratings aren’t great and aren’t getting any better, even for a show debuting in the summer. Besides the bad timing of the program’s release and promotion, the bad writing, and the predictable and exponentially limiting episode-to-episode structure, I believe the show is failing to connect with audiences who, for a host of reasons, can’t identify with and aren’t interested in seeing a weekly show about a selfless and generous billionaire, and I don’t blame them.

Based loosely on the life story of Bobby Sager, The Philanthropist is about wealthy socialite Teddy Rist (James Purefoy) and his decision to utilize his wealth, power, and sway to make the world into a better place – one non-American country at a time – after a revelatory experience saving a boy from drowning during a Hurricane in Nigeria.

The Philanthropist follows the heels of other forms of popular media released half a year ago that also feature generous wealthy men: the reality show Secret Millionaire and the film Seven Pounds. It seems odd that during an extended economic crisis, a time in which people of all strata are looking out solely for their own best interests and the interests of their most immediate loved ones, that networks and studios would flock to narratives about millionaires. My problem with these programs, of course, is not the general promotion of a message of charity, but the context in which they posit that such charity be given. Rather, what these media objects have in common is promoting charity as primarily (if not only) appropriate once one has accumulated a substantial amount of wealth for oneself first. These programs endorse that a degree of class and fiscal status must be achieved before one can give at such an extensive level.

While America is a nation that purportedly endorses “Christian values” (as if standard values and ethics were exclusive to religious practice), mainstream Christianity within our western superpower has never treated seriously the radical anti-materialism within Christian doctrine. In order to marry the doctrine of Christianity with free-market capitalism, charity can only continue to be endorsed if it is implemented moderately and selectively, likewise endowing a sense of shamelessness for the wealth that is kept if it is “honestly earned” (i.e., why is honestly earned wealth somehow less susceptible to or deserving of a charitable utility?). Like so much selective reading of Biblical text that goes into this popular ideology, the rich man being unable to move through the eye of a needle is rendered simply as one of many parables that “shouldn’t be taken literally.” Teddy Rist and the millionaires of reality television have the privilege of giving their time, effort, and money to charity, but because of their moderation, are allowed to maintain their wealth and status in the process without contradicting late capitalist ideology, if not even benefitting by not only engaging in philanthropic work, but also having a filmed record of it. Not only does their giving become public knowledge, but they can also TiVo themselves being pat on the back for it.

True charity, of course, occurs when one gives something that they cannot afford to give. This is the only form of charity that is truly selfless, for it takes completely into empathetic account the needs of another in place of one’s own. The charity featured in The Philanthropist and Secret Millionaire, however, celebrates a watered-down definition of charity that doesn’t fall into contradiction with capitalist principles. I do not mean to make a blanket critique of capitalism, but the idea that the values and goals of capitalism can coexist with truly selfless charity is simply absurd. Secret Millionaire especially displays the most moderate, calculated form of charity, as the millionaire of each episode decides to divvy up a portion of the $100K given to each charity of his choosing – he must, therefore, choose which charities get more and which get less, and which are more or less deserving (the rich giver, then, still retains a great deal of power). In this respect, the act of giving is bestowed far more importance than what is given or the impact it has.

Like the construction of specialty-built houses for lower income families that can’t hope to continue to pay their mortgages in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the actions of these reality TV stars seem charitable and well-meaning, but the nature of their giving ultimately comes off as rather futile. By the end of each episode of Secret Millionaire, strikingly little has changed. The millionaire may have learned a little about the lives of the “less fortunate” (as if money is the only type of fortune), and the lives of those he interacts with may be positively impacted by his giving, but by the end the millionaire is still the millionaire and the poor are still poor. The dividing line – and the problems therein that necessitate charity – remains, and it seems unlikely that either of these people will ever switch places within the bounds of American social mobility unless some sort of magical economic freaky Friday takes place (hey, I think I have an idea for a new reality TV show!).

Furthermore, these shows are never shown from the perspective of the less fortunate, or the perspective of the many lower class citizens who work and volunteer for charitable organizations, and instead the point of the show seems to be for the wealthy man to ultimately reward himself rather than make any real difference or progress. Potentially, these shows further cement the rich and the poor within a more permanent economic distance because the generous act by the wealthy man allows him – and, inferentially, the viewers who watch the show that subscribe to such a worldview – to enjoy his wealth more comfortably with the knowledge that he or she is a good person, as documented on television.

I mention the previous religious arguments primarily because of Seven Pounds, a film that finds its lead millionaire with an itch for Christ-like martyrdom to the extent that he not only gives his possessions, but his entire body, to those in need. Seven Pounds is the only one of these narratives mentioned that exhibits charity to the radical extreme rather than the calculated giving on display in The Philanthropist and Secret Millionaire. Seven Pounds argues that wealth is necessary for true charity because, in order to be charitable, one needs to have something to give. The accumulation of wealth, then, if all one’s possessions are ultimately given away, becomes the accumulation of future charitable acts. While it seems like I am endorsing Seven Pounds as the one media objects between these three that doesn’t fall into hypocritical hair-splitting, I’ve yet to reach the biggest problem within these narratives…

The likes of low-income families shown in shows like Secret Millionaire and the 3rd world struggles (though often fabricated, avoiding real political relevance) chronicled in The Philanthropist are rarely given a voice on mainstream television, and I will consent that this is a significant positive factor that distinguishes these shows from most network programming. Also, in the age of Bernie Madoff, it makes sense that network and studio executives would think audiences would take comfort in the idea that good-hearted, philanthropic wealthy men actually exist out there, however disjointed from reality this idea might be. But the storytelling nature of the medium, and the inherent issue of being recorded, or being watched, renders the depiction of charity in media inherently problematic. One can’t avoid a sense of performativity with the millionaires of Secret Millionaire, as the presence of the camera automatically makes the sincerity of the giving questionable. Even in a fictional narrative like The Philanthropist, each episode is framed with the telling of each of Rist’s charitable acts, either by a close friend of the character or by Rist himself, thus further suggesting that charity is only valuable if other people know about it. The incentive for charity is no longer giving for giving’s sake, but in hopes to have that giving depicted on television.

The contradiction here is akin to the real-life institution of celebrity charity, where actors like George Clooney and Don Cheadle reach out to humanitarian organizations in Darfur, or musicians like Bono feed Africa one mouth at a time through the sheer power of his douchebag sunglasses – all worthy causes, but their intentions seem dubious as a result of their charity being intentionally performed so publicly. Seven Pounds is probably the penultimate (fictional) conflation of celebrity with charitable cause, as the extreme sacrifice of its lead character is unavoidably tied to Will Smith’s weighted star persona.

Last year audiences flocked in droves to other types of films that featured generous wealthy men, superhero films. But it seems less troubling and questionable for a character like Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne to assist those in need, because they do it through the guise of anonymity, and are thus rendered selfless. Yet, as we the spectators witness even these rich men risk and give their lives to others, we act as living proof that there is still an audience for even the most anonymous forms of charity.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak