Friday, March 02, 2007


By Ivan G. Goldman
My neighbor on the next hill is building a 20,000-square-foot home. I haven't seen the blueprints, but that's big enough to house a multi-plex theater and a commercial bowling alley. The owner, Deepak Chopra, is a physician out of India who hit it big on the American self-help guru circuit.

His website says, “Dr. Chopra's work is changing the way the world views physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social wellness.” The structure Chopra is building to tune up his personal mental, emotional, spiritual and social wellness will spread over several lots, with fantastic shoreline views over the 25-mile stretch from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Malibu. Even without a telescope, Chopra will be able to pick out distant mansions of similar ilk that have been multiplying like giant rats and are now landmarks for jetliners flying in and out of Los Angeles International Airport. Among them would be the Brentwood mansion of environmental sympathizer Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his bride Maria Shriver, whose garage holds a fleet of Hummers.

Also down there are car dealers selling million-dollar Bugattis and Beverly Hills jewelry stores where you can pick up a $300,000 Patek-Philippe or order a specialty watch for over a million.
Of course this is not just a California phenomenon. All around the globe the super-rich are jumping into an arms race of purchases, but displaying obscene wealth is especially okay in America, where everybody figures he or she can be the next Donald Trump, only with a better haircut.
Ron Perelman, defined by the news media as a financier, sold his oceanfront estate in Palm Beach for over $70 million. He didn’t leave it for a bungalow. Yachts keep getting bigger and bigger. In late 2004, The Wall Street Journal, beginning to focus on the phenomenon of excess, discovered boat builders were slapping together plenty of pleasure craft longer than 200 feet on special order from buyers willing to put up $100 million or more.
All those adjoining lots purchased by my neighbor so he could spread out and be more comfortable had to be worth at least $3 million apiece. Figure in architect’s fees, gymnasium, marble floors, chandeliers, a place to store the lawn mower, and all the other what-nots and extras that go into such elephantine habitats, and we’re looking at something like $50 million for a single-family residence. For the record, my family and I live in a four-bedroom house that takes up 1,834 square feet. Years ago we lived in 3,000 square feet. To me the home seemed as big as Montana, and there I quickly discovered how inconvenient it was to live in a place where sometimes the inhabitants aren’t in shouting range of each other. I found myself wandering through too many rooms to find the damn newspaper.
In further irony, the owners of these monstrous mansions generally camouflage them with shrubbery, fences, and other architectural shields. They want the rabble to know they're in there, but don't trust them with the details. If you’re anything like me, you stand puzzled by all this grasping for stuff that has no use. I like luxury as well as the next person, but clearly at some point it crosses the line into Goofyland. “How much better can you eat?” Detective Gittes asked super-rich incest-monger Noah Cross in Robert Towne’s splendid script for Chinatown. “What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”

This culture of the absurd was examined with precision and derision in 1899 when philosopher and economist Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class. In it, he coined the terms “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste” and took a piercing, wry look at what the ruling class of his time was doing with its immense wealth. He discovered that these people were infatuated with owning goods that had absolutely no use whatsoever other than to advertise to everyone else that they could afford to waste valuable resources on utterly useless stuff. They also, Veblen decided, had a secondary purpose – trying to make everyone who couldn’t afford expensive, useless stuff eat their livers. Ridiculously huge mansions filled with servants were among his many examples of such conspicuous consumption of useless stuff, along with stables full of riding horses and jeweled walking sticks. Inverse snob Veblen failed to see that some owners may have been caring souls pursuing physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social wellness.

1 comment:

expat@large said...

I knew all that Self-Help had to be helping SOME self or other.

Ironically, I am reading Veblen at the moment - outrageously and conspicuously on my PDA!