In one of the better scenes in “Titanic,” America’s latest box-office sensation, the young artist traveling in steerage, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, gains an invitation to the luxurious first-class dining room, where he is duly snubbed by a collection of vain, boorish people who have never done a decent day’s work in their lives.
As he takes in the Astors and the Guggenheims, their cigars, jewelry and empty conversation, he whispers to the winsome aristocrat, played by Kate Winslet, who has betrayed her sort in order to be with him, “Perhaps I was earmarked from birth, and only the scoundrels and geniuses ever rise out of the class into which they are born.”
Actually, DiCaprio, whose artistry tends toward the physical rather than the poetic - he remarks, “This is bad,” a lot - doesn’t quite say that. The words come from the working-class hero of “Room at the Top,” John Braine’s furious indictment of 1950s Britain.
“Titanic” is an exercise in class hatred that few European socialists would dare to display. The French sometimes still make films about wicked mine owners locking out their workers; in “Titanic,” the poor are locked below decks to drown.
This is a tale of two ships - one toiling in the engine room, the other trying on diamonds - accentuated by the convenient fact that in the film, at least, there are no second-class characters to bridge the gap.
The rich people are all so awful - one even steals a baby to get put on a lifeboat - that an icy Atlantic grave seems too good for them.
Encouraging poor Americans to bay for the blood of rich ones is something Hollywood usually eschews. Ironically, “Titanic” was itself, until recently, a byword for pointless extravagance because of its bloated budget. But class warfare does no harm at the box office. The film has taken in $90 million in 10 days.
Of course, reading too much into movies can be dangerous. The murmurs of approval across America as the waters descend on the brandy-quaffing millionaires- yes, even “Titanic” has to admit that a few of the rich creeps did let the women and children go first - are not quite the sound of revolutionary tumbrils.
The United States is still a place where most people react to seeing a man in a Ferrari by redoubling their own efforts to be able to afford one, rather than by trying to let the air out of his tires.
Silicon Valley, for instance, has succeeded in part because nobody there understands the European notion that people can be “too big for their boots.” Great wealth is generally seen as the by-product of cool ideas being put into practice.
But for how much longer? Conventional wisdom has it that, although income inequality has risen, the rich behave far less obnoxiously in the 1990s than they did in the 1980s, the decade when greed was good and the masters of the universe, a phrase borrowed by “Titanic,” ruled Wall Street.
In Beverly Hills and the Hamptons, the wealthy now drive practical Range Rovers rather than frivolous open-top sports cars. But, with the value of stock-option programs now pushing $1 trillion, this cover is wearing thin.
Vanity Fair recently hailed New York as “the champagne city, making the brash consumption of the 1980s look like the Depression.”
Suddenly the talk is of $2,000 bottles of wine, $13,000 handbags, 5,000 reservation requests a day at Le Cirque and people “only being worth 30” (it is unnecessary to mention the million).
With Ronald Reagan no longer in the White House to take the blame, wealth looks more vulnerable to criticism than it did a decade ago. Wall Street’s long bull run has effortlessly turned many small fortunes into large ones without many of the beneficiaries raising a finger.
Some of the biggest pay packets are going to those responsible for the massive corporate downsizings of the mid-1990s, when many steerage passengers, as well as middle managers, were cast overboard.
The voraciousness of people such as Henry Kravis, the original barbarian at the gate - who is said to have earned $300 million in 1997 - or Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap has helped keep corporate America competitive, but they are not loved for it.
With a few exceptions, such as George Soros, the new rich have not been philanthropic.
One New York grande dame, while admitting that her own ancestors were not entirely nice people, points out that they founded hospitals and museums: “They gave something back - unlike that greedy little bully, a well-known figure on Wall Street, who probably deducts the tax on the charity ball tickets his wife forces him to buy.”
Her peers in San Francisco view the nerds of Silicon Valley, too busy investing in start-ups to worry about poorer folk, with similar disdain.
One straw in the wind could be Bill Gates. Once a deserving technological wizard, he is now often depicted as an undeserving monopolist.
Peter Drucker, America’s foremost corporate guru, compares today’s tycoons to the Wall Street heroes of the 1920s who became Roosevelt’s “malefactors of great wealth.” Few modern bosses, Drucker has argued, “can even imagine the hatred, contempt and fury that has been created.”
Naturally, this fury could relent. More of the new rich may discover philanthropy and good manners, just as the Astors did before them.
But there is one difference. Much of the new pain, like much of the new wealth, is being created not by the rich but by globalization.
Already politicians seem to be taking aim at the “winner-takes-all society.” It is not hard to imagine talk of supertaxes or higher trade barriers to stop the injustice. But that might turn out to be like trying to ram an iceberg.
At the end of “Titanic,” we are told the good news that DiCaprio’s baby-snatching rival shot himself during the crash of 1929. The Great Depression, which followed that particular culling of the undeserving rich, also did the poor remarkably few favors.