Portraits of a generation: rich, young, and showing off on Instagram

Max Key proves romance isn't dead, pictured with girlfriend Amelia Finlayson (and a Volkswagen) in a pose surely copied ...
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Max Key proves romance isn't dead, pictured with girlfriend Amelia Finlayson (and a Volkswagen) in a pose surely copied from Fragonard's The Stolen Kiss (1786).

Remember Max Key's Hawaii holiday video?

When the Prime Minister's son released it in July, the clip was widely criticised for the way it flaunted the Key family's wealth. It made the Prime Minister look "out of touch", critics said.

But Max Key was just doing what rich kids have always done: showing off their wealth through images.

In an essay published in Jacobin, writer Adam Stoneman links rich young people posting on Instagram to 17th and 18th century portraits of young aristocrats. Both types of image, he says, call attention to their subject's prestige and status.

"While the medium transmitting the pictures is novel, the images and the social relations they represent recall earlier depictions of wealth," he writes.

Rich kids showing off on Instagram are an international phenomenon. There's a whole Tumblr devoted to chronicling their excesses.

One of the most notorious proponents is Param Sharma, a 19-year-old living in San Francisco known as Lavish P on his Instagram. "My life is like Louis Vuitton everyone wants it [sic]," his profile description reads.

His Instagram shows him flushing his toilet with San Pellegrino, riding in limousines, and playing with stacks of cash. He calls pretty much everyone a "peasant".

New Zealand doesn't have anyone with the arrogance to rival Sharma, but there are a number of young Kiwis who regularly flaunt their privileged lifestyles online.

Much easier to hold a cocktail than get a finch to balance on your finger. Francois Boucher's Portrait of Madame Baudouin (155-1760).

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Much easier to hold a cocktail than get a finch to balance on your finger. Francois Boucher's Portrait of Madame Baudouin (155-1760). Photo: INSTAGRAM

Max Key is just one of a group of wealthy Auckland-based socialites. Their Instagram accounts offer a window into a decadent world of helicopter rides, oysters, Veuve Cliquot, expensive sneakers, tiny dogs, designer sunglasses, winery visits, European cars and overseas holidays.

According to University of Auckland portraiture expert Dr Erin Griffey, these items are the new icons of wealth.

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She says portraits historically used a set catalogue of symbols to convey their subjects' wealth. Today's Instagrams use a similarly limited "iconography of membership" - the only difference is the long gowns and horses have been replaced with designer sunglasses and flash cars.

"It was a cut-and-paste exercise then, to some extent, because there was a shorthand for how you convey political status, or social status," Griffey says. "It's the exact same thing today, except instead of a crown it's a black AMEX card; instead of a pearl necklace it's a Rolex watch."

The toned bodies displayed on these elite Instagrams are also a throwback, Griffey says.

"You find this in Greek and Roman portraits, you find it throughout history and they're doing the exact same now. Women have to have soft skin, rosy cheeks - it's like the obligatory bikini shot."

Don't let anyone tell you the equestrian portrait is dead. Comparing this Instagram image with John Wootton's Portrait of a Man on Horseback (c1720) shows the form is still alive and kicking.

Don't let anyone tell you the equestrian portrait is dead. Comparing this Instagram image with John Wootton's Portrait of a Man on Horseback (c1720) shows the form is still alive and kicking. Photo: INSTAGRAM

Portraits have always been used to show off their subjects' wealth, she says, a way of showcasing membership in a community of elites.

Max Rashbrooke, author of Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, says this kind of conspicuous consumption reflects "a more unequal society".

"When you've got those bigger income gaps, society tends to become more competitive and more materialist, because when you've got those big income gaps between people your position on the ladder matters a whole heap. So then it's really in their interests to display that wealth."

Tellingly, in most cases the young people have not had a chance to earn that money themselves.

"What that's showing is that in an unequal society advantage gets passed on from generation to generation," Rashbrooke says.

Although inheritance is nothing new, Rashbrooke says the growing income gap makes that matter more.

"There's simply more advantage to be transferred."

These old portraits are reflections of a time when the rich had money and the leisure time to spend it, and the poor had nothing. A time when French Queen Marie Antoinette allegedly told staving peasants to eat cake if they couldn't buy bread. It's perhaps a little alarming that our own social elite resembles theirs in any respect.

But Rashbrooke doesn't think we've got a new aristocracy - yet.

"We don't have an aristocratic elite in the way they did several centuries ago," he says.

"Whatever you think about the parents of these wealthy kids, they will generally have earned their fortunes themselves."

However he warns that studies, including Thomas Piketty's 2013 book Capital in the 21st Century, have warned Western society is reverting to those levels of inequality.

The similarities between Instagram and portraiture for the wealthy could take on a more sinister meaning.

 - Stuff

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