Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Like former MTV veejay Nina Blackwood, who was last sighted pimping a collection of “retro” hits on late-night TV, the readers of the Robb Report for the Affluent Lifestyle have squatted down in the midst of the 1980s and refused to leave. Each issue of the fat, slick monthly assures its readers — some 300,000 of them, mostly male, with an average household income of $755,000, according to advertising director Rick Sedler — that in the circles that really matter, gratuitous displays of wealth and cheesiness will never go out of style.
Blackwood’s ’80s are the decade of Culture Club and Flock of Seagulls; the Robb Report, by contrast, harks back to the decade of Dynasty and Donald Trump. Indeed, a recent Robb feature celebrated the triumphant “return” of this most flamboyant ’80s icon. “The Donald is back,” the editors croon — and, it goes without saying, he’s badder than ever (as is his hair). Writer Linda Marx defines for her readers the essence of Trump: “a fascination with flamboyance, an obsession with opulence — he is a man who believes his own braggadocio. Hyperbole, chutzpah, and singing superlatives are all hallmarks of the Trump personality that translate well to his casino hotels and yachts and planes and luxury apartments.”
Just as the swinging Hef — pipe in his mouth, playmates in his hot tub — was once the symbol of an idealized state of perpetual bachelorhood, so The Donald remains a symbol of ’80s-style excess. But while Hef’s style of sexual utopianism is looking long in the tooth (as is the man himself), ’80s-style excess is still tenaciously clinging to life — and nowhere more tenaciously than in the pages of the Robb Report.
The comparison with Hef is not made idly, for the Robb Report offers a kind of pornography for the very, very wealthy — only without all those naked people to clutter up the pictures. But the Robb Report, which began its life more than two decades ago as a Rolls Royce tip sheet, is far more hard-core than anything ever imagined by Hef. In the place of big-haired, hard-bodied, pontoon-breasted hussies, the Robb Report offers up tantalizing pictures of stereos, cigars, yachts and watches. And Hummers. Lots of Hummers.
Just as porn promises the hardest, the hottest, the biggest, the wettest, so the Robb Report promises only the finest — as its advertisers insist again and again. Why settle for an ordinary dog when a company called Baggins can deliver up “simply the finest Shar-Pei you can own,” with “Adult Wrinkling Guaranteed.” Why settle for a plain old Harley when you can own Confederate Motorcycles’ America GT, “the best damn motorcycle on the road today” (and one that is “Expensive. By Design”).
Nothing is too obscure to merit the most extravagant of superlatives. Philip Wolman and Co. offer up cufflinks designed to look like cigars — but which in reality look eerily like severed penises. The ad assures RR readers that these strangely unsettling objets-de-body-part are in fact “the finest 14K two-tone gold cuff-links” in the world — which makes me despair a little for the future of the two-tone gold cuff link.
Wolman and Co. aren’t the only folks declaring themselves to be at the top of their respective heap. One ad promotes “the most luxurious parfum in the world,” another “the world’s finest scale model train.” An upscale bakery offers “the best and most unusual cakes in the world” — including one cake that’s shaped like a yacht. (What’s next — a yacht shaped like a cake? Cuff-links shaped like … never mind.) A company with the irritatingly whimsical name of “Beau Ties” declares that it delivers “perfection to bow tie lovers.” Another company promises “the most innovative aquarium furniture ever.” Yet another touts “the finest motors and control systems for interior window treatments.”
Once in a while — a very long while — the advertisers let slip a tiny bit of doubt: In its RR ad, a clothier called Ascot Chang tentatively suggests that its ascots are only “perhaps the best.” But RR discourages this sort of hesitation, looking down on advertisers who don’t see themselves as offering the tippy-top of the line — whether they’re talking about scale model trains or Shar-Peis. And while there isn’t some sort of independent evaluation of these claims — a Shar-Pei Quality Assurance board, say — ad director Sedler assures me he keeps close track over who advertises in the magazine, and doesn’t hesitate to reject ads that don’t live up to his exacting, Trump-like standards. “Everything that’s in here is chosen because its a marketplace ideally suited for the best of the best,” he tells me. “We’re very careful about who we accept in the magazine.”
While many in our acutely self-conscious age try to disguise their consumer avarice a little — defending their various high-tech toys as business necessities, cultivating an almost ascetic style of opulence — RR readers make no attempt to hide their ostentation. After all, as Thorstein Veblen explained back in 1899, the whole point of good old-fashioned conspicuous consumption is that it be conspicuous — and conspicuously unnecessary. “No merit would accrue,” Veblen commented, “from the consumption of the bare necessities of life.” And clearly neither the “affordable $50,000 stereo” promised by one RR advertiser, nor the $189.95 hunk of buffalo meat touted by another is exactly a necessity — bare or clothed.
Still, great wealth is not without its responsibilities — as the greatly wealthy feel compelled to remind the rest of us as often as they can. Indeed, the RR sees its mission as an educational one — promoting itself as a guide for the newly wealthy who haven’t yet figured out what to do with their looming surpluses of cash. “Many celebrities, athletes [are] relatively new to money,” Sedler notes, and RR wants to help them learn a certain minimal kind of frugality. “We’ve all heard the stories of a baseball player making several million a year and then something happens and he’s broke two years later,” Sedler notes sadly. “That’s a serious problem — spending money, thinking it’s endless. You need to be trained as to how you spend that money.” Just how pushing $200 buffalo steaks will train people how to spend money wisely is left unclear.
Sedler even suggests, subtly, that the Robb Report might function as a sort of supplement to the work ethic — spurring readers to greater heights of productivity. But only for the already rich. “It’s not a dream book, in the sense of someone who doesn’t have money who wants to dream about owning some of these things,” Sedler tells me. “It’s a dream book for someone who’s already a millionaire dreaming about things they can find in Robb Report that he or she wants to buy when they have many more millions.”
For those who’ve fallen a few hundred thousand short of their first million, though, RR is less a dream book than a nightmare. If these people can afford to spend $70,000 on a goddamn Hummer, why can’t they buy themselves even a smidgen of taste? Now, I’m hardly free from avarice. Far from it. I sometimes find myself transported into a sort of techno-consumerist-trance by the “fetish” section in Wired, and I flip through computer catalogs with the same enthusiasm I used to show for Victoria’s Secret. But RR’s kind of porn leaves me cold. Flipping through its pages, wincing at each new example of crass hyper-materialism, I find myself suddenly overcome with leftist indignation, ready to take to the streets with signs and slogans. 2-4-6-8! Your stupid Shar-Peis aren’t so great! 3-5-7-9! That Bang and Olufsen should be mine!
Or I could do something far more damaging. I could subscribe to the filthy thing — and throw its demographics all to hell.
David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.More David Futrelle.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
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