I’ve been thinking a little bit about the 1980s comedy Caddyshack and what that movie might tell us about our changing perceptions of the wealthy. The fellow that was originally supposed to be the main character was a young caddie who was trying to figure out how to get to college without either family money or grades good enough for a scholarship. He tries to weasel his way into a scholarship from the country club he works for.
One thing that struck me was what was similar and what was different in the lifestyles of the caddy and the country club denizens like the Judge Smails and the doctor whose name I can’t remember. The caddy’s large family (and intact) lives in a two floor house. Money is tight and his parents are obviously harried. You get the sense they work very hard, and are still having trouble making ends meet. The material differences between the caddy’s family and the usual country clubbers comes down less to material things than the consumption of leisure. The country clubbers enjoy the golf, elegant dinners (I guess), and boat rides. But here is the thing: the main difference between the country clubbers and the working-class is that the country clubbers don’t work that hard and neither do their kids. Several of the wealthy set recognize the emptiness of this life.
Enter the character of Al Czervik (played by Rodney Dangerfield.) Czervik has made huge amounts of money in real estate. He is far wealthier than the “old money” at the country club and brags about his extensive holdings. He is also a recovering workaholic. The material difference between the caddies and Czervik are actually much greater than the material differences between the caddies and the doctor or Judge Smails. The social distance between the caddies and Czervik in nonexistent. Here is an example of how wealth based on work and merit can obliterate class barriers.
How does Caddyshack look today? The perceptions of the wealthy have changed in some important ways. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone talk about “banker’s hours.” I also can’t remember any portrayals of the life or regional bank executives. The most common references to bankers that I see have been to investment bankers, and they are known for working lots of hours. I also don’t hear nearly as many jokes about doctors spending too much time on the golf course. The closest thing to a ticket to an upper middle-class life comes from great grades, lots of extracurricular activities, and lots of work hours after graduation. The parents work long hours and invest huge amounts of energy into making sure their kids do all the work they need to get into the right school and then the right job. Staying within the American elite (unless you are at the very pinnacle of wealth) seems like a lot more work than it used to be. They really do work hard, but I’m not sure that the products of our partly self-replicating meritocracy would relate to any better to the caddies of today than did the real world (as opposed to satirical) wealthy of fifty years ago.
Let’s not take this too seriously. The reality of life at all levels of the income distribution has always been complicated. Caddyshack ended up mostly as a vehicle for Rodney Dangerfield and Chevy Chase to insult people. In some ways it was dated even as it was being released (as it was partly based on the memories of its screenwriters.) But Caddyshack does give us a sense of how the wealthy were perceived at one point in time. Even as satire and broad comedy, some of those perceptions ring false today.