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The Carnival of Homelessness: How the Filthy Rich React

An aggressive sign of an affluent society can usually be gauged by its invidious misuse of its privilege.  Poverty is deemed necessary, and the rich must try to understand it. To be privileged is to be guilty, a tickling of the conscience as the pennies pile up and the assets grow; and from that premise, efforts must be made to give shape to the forgotten, and, in most cases, the invisible.

To be guilty is a spur for works that supposedly highlight those nagging reasons for feeling guilty.  You might supply donations. You can become a philanthropist. You can join a charity. Obscenely, you can become a creature of mocking persuasion, a person of pantomime: you can assume the position of a poor person, a homeless person, and pretend to be him.  And let it be filmed.

“When I was given the opportunity to spend 10 days experiencing different forms of homelessness for an SBS documentary, I jumped at the chance to understand more about a crisis that now sees more than 116,000 Australians homeless on any given night.” So go the words of veteran thespian Cameron Daddo, a person who never explains how understanding Sydney’s poverty leads to results, other than spending time on the screen and proving rather awkward to boot.

The individuals involved in the tawdry Australian spectacle Filthy Rich & Homeless have various reasons for participating.  They have a chance, not merely to appear before the cameras, but to explore another part of Sydney.  What matters for Skye Leckie is the anger of authenticity. Socialite that she is, she does not believe that her participation in the venture is “poverty porn” despite being the very same creature who benefits from having a good quotient of poor around.  “Those who say it’s stunt TV are being totally ignorant to the homeless situation out there.” This is a delicious way of self-justification, a positioned blow to excuse how her exploitation of a social condition is entirely justified by a mysterious, holy insight.  Her pantomime, in other words, is heralded as genuine.

Benjamin Law, author and very much an identity beacon (those things help these days), played the cool cat.  In such ensembles, it’s always good to have the confidently composed, the person who won’t fall for the pathos of the show.  “I went to Filthy Rich and Homeless being adamant that it was only 10 days, and that I wasn’t going to cry – I felt it’d almost be insulting to people who were actually homeless.”  So goes his justification for actually participating in the project: he would hold firm, stay calm, keep his tear ducts dry.  “But when it’s demonstrated that this could easily be a family member, and someone you love, I couldn’t not be affected.”

The show is sugary fodder for social media masturbation, an ever so prodding tease for those who feel pangs of stirring guilt.  Nonsense about “genuine compassion” and “empathy” whirl through the chattersphere, with a disconcerting gurgle of approval at the program.  The implication is clear: like true porn, it produces a release, an orgiastic sensation. The poor are sociological wank fodder. In the aftermath is the little death, or should be.  Such programs float on the froth of sentiment and last longer than they should.

There are shades of the carnivalesque, as Michael Bakhtin called it, in this exercise.  The tradition of the carnival, he explained, suggested alternate worlds, inverted ones where social orders might, just temporarily, be suspended.  The performer and the audience would become one. Communal dialogue might emerge. But the participants will eventually go home; the nobility will revert to their high standing, and the poor will undress and return to their squalid, putrid existence.

Feudalism and tribalism may have made their official exit in the historical textbooks, but we still find stirrings of old custom in the media industry.  The poor are there to be mocked; the vulnerable are there to be, in some form, exploited. Gone is the exaggerated chivalric code, as meagre as it was (keeping people in place), and the presumption of charity.  In its place is the clawing, scraping urge of the media moguls and networks keen to capitalise upon a condition, a disability, a drawback. Poverty is visual and lucrative for all – except the impoverished.

An obvious flaw in this project – several wealthy members of society burying themselves in the poor underbelly – is contrived anonymity. The monarchs supposedly travel incognito amongst the slums.  The participants supposedly become unknown for a time. The King and Queen scrap around the hovels. But who recognises them? Presumably everybody.  Not having a home, or living in indigence, doesn’t mean not having access to the saturation coverage called the World Wide Web.  The camera crews might be a giveaway, the very reality of which produces distortions in the interviews.

The grotesque scene uncovers itself, and the tears, spilling on cue, supply catharsis.  “Most interesting,” noted the Sydney Morning Herald, “is just how little time on the street it takes for them to be reduced to tears.”  To be fair, they only had ten days, so the performance clock was ticking. The filthy rich feel justified – they acknowledged pain and desperation.  The poor, their role achieved, can simply go on living.


18 comments

  1. Josephus

    Nearly everything is commodified. The dead singer lies pumped full of formaldehyde, covered in a gold dress and a showy gold coffin. Extravagant eulogies too for the dead Senator who lacked the acuity not to choose Sarah Palin as running mate. Show, carnival, crowd scenes and stirring speeches. The crowd roars as the lions tear men apart, or roar for their team at the football. Manipulation, the mass mind. Nothing new here; move on.

  2. jamesss

    Thank You Binoy.

    If nothing else the show highlights the plight of many of our citizens and hopefully provides an
    awareness to a shift in consciousness of our society.

    Each of us is a divine being, we all have the spark of compassion within.

  3. Adrianne Haddow

    Yet another ‘reality’ TV show which I missed. I loathe so-called ‘reality’ TV. It is something society would be better off without.

    The cult of celebrity is another sickness this society could do without.
    How does a celebrity spending a few days on the streets have any effect on the lives of those they are using to showcase their own compassion and ‘courage’ ?

    It’s the same with politicians and ceos and their winter sleep out . It must be bloody insulting for the real homeless.

    As helvityni says build homes for the poor and disenfranchised.

    The celebrities could use their elevated status to lobby for more services and shelters for the homeless.
    The money used to make the show could buy swags for some of these folk for winter, and afford them a little warmth and a little security.
    I’d be more convinced about celebrity compassion and social commitment then.

    Thank you Binoy. Your article shines a light on yet another hypocrisy in our society.

  4. James Ellis

    So much effort, almost daily, is put into trying to convince Australians that the plight of those less fortunate in our society is more of a lifestyle choice than any oversight by society itself.
    Of course, unless you’ve come close to being disenfranchised by your own society, it’s fairly easy to remain susceptible to that daily message, apathetic to its meaning, or unaware of its existence in the circle in which you travel.
    Anything that highlights the growth of homelessness and its causes is worthwhile.

  5. Kelty

    Thanks for another thought-provoking article Binoy. I watched some of the program as it tracked the reactions of celebrities interfacing with crisis accommodation. Nothing wrong with that if the purpose of the program lead to a more compassionate response to homelessness. However, compassion is only compassion if it actually includes a response. Claiming to understand something is not a solution. Wearing a pretty little badge or sprig of wattle is not a solution. As helvitni points out, Finland has solved the problem, Build shelter! But what gets promoted in Australia? Build a better sleeping bag as solution. Minimal response speaks of a minimal interest in fixing things.

    One weaknesses of the series is that it didn’t delve into ongoing govt policy failure – Why has the tax system been allowed to codify regulations to favor the wealthiest in society, effectively turning shelter into a commodity? On top of that, what understanding do we have in regard to ending the social influences that lead to homelessness? We are still at the kindergarten level of treating symptoms as if they are causes. A result comes along that we don’t like, then we jump up and down as if the result is self-created without cause. It’s as real as an episode of Doctor Who.

  6. Oscar

    Yes the reality shows are rotting our minds. From a Scott Camm to a Master Chef to the vaccuous dating shows and the ugly ockers on

    Goggle Box. It’s junk TV.What about a show that builds shelters/homes for the homeless Scott?

  7. guest

    Yes, even the volunteers manning the soup kitchens go home. The priest in his cassock goes home after the blessing. The police who clear away the blankets and the baggage from the railway station entrance go home.

    As for me, I go home having done nothing much for anybody. It is too big for me – and for the government as well, apparently.

    At least the celebrities in the “tawdry” tv show get to walk for a while in the shoes of the homeless – and it clearly affects them. So they should do something more?

    Or at least someone else should, but not us. Some other celebrity, perhaps, with a hammer and saw.

    These poor homeless people are useful to some. They show how there are people who have not succeeded and are the deserving poor. Whereas the rich are the deserving rich; there are religions which provide special privileges for such fortunates – it is the will of God.

    So also we keep people on remote islands in secret, no cameras or journalists allowed. If there are whistleblowers, we will deny everything. Let them rot for their indiscretions – or go back where they came from. No potential terrorists allowed.

    That Samaritan, he was just a showman, an attention seeker.

  8. king1394

    People are homeless because we lack the will to recognise and solve the problem, which is simply a lack of accommodation – but that is not actually true. Across the city, and everywhere in the country, are huge buildings that could be made available for temporary and emergency accommodation. They range from empty factory buildings to underutilised public halls. We have a Housing Department, and community housing organisations. These could move people into secured and supervised situations if there was the will.

    One of the things that stops them is the notion of ‘private property’. If someone, or some business, owns a suitable site, they would have to be approached, memoranda would need to be signed, the health and safety would be upgraded (taking time and money). And no one wants to put money in to a building that will be demolished or sold in the end. And of course, private owners are scared of everything from vandalism to not being able to sell or do what they want to when they decide to do it.

    So on one side we have the homeless. On the other side, there are many empty buildings that would provide more comfortable shelter than sleeping rough. Between is a vast gulf of helplessness.

  9. Nigel Drake

    For my part, the interest was in the tales of the unfortunates themselves.

    The ways in which they illustrated just how our ‘systems’ act as forces opposing justice, opportunity and the mythical ‘fair go’.

    Likewise the reality of how little it takes to become destitute and how difficult it is to recover from misfortune.

    The clear evidence that the general public is uncaring; that it believes that it is the resposibility of “someone” to “do something about it” rather than to take an active interest in helping.

    That generally people are well conditioned to believe that if a person is poor, then it is because they are somehow deficient in ambition and/or too lazy to fix their own problems.

    Dr. Kampmark, I feel that you missed the point of the programmes entirely.

    Perhaps you need to learn how people of non-academic background see their world. A little more direct observation and less vicarious study might serve you better.

  10. Andreas Bimba

    Speculation in that commodity called real estate along with high levels of unemployment and underemployment and an increasingly disfunctional system of social support including gross underfunding of public housing and high levels of substance abuse are probably the main factors behind homelessness. Most of these changes arose from deliberate policy choices by our political class acting in accordance with the agenda of the business elites and wealthy. We as a people did vote for them.

  11. Oscar

    And I dont wish to do my “Block” though there is more garbage on TV tonight with the extremeley unfunny Russell Coights All Aussie Adventures and the very painful Little Big Shots.

  12. David Bruce

    Why is it that the filthy rich object so vehemently to the idea of a Universal Basic Income?

    After a natural disaster, even the World Bank is now providing a form of Universal Basic Income to help the homeless recover!

    Seems to me, Australia has become a permanent natural disaster for many, thanks to the failed policies of successive franchise holders of the Australian Government corporation!

    Work until 70, suppress claims for pay increases, allow corporations to operate in Australia without contributing taxes on their profits, monetize everything, including mortgage repayments, allow foreign nationals to buy land in Australia, lease our ports (Darwin) to foreign countries to operate, borrow $100 billion each year for 3 years to “keep the wheels of government turning” and fund “opportunistic” purchases for the defence department?

    Do I hear the sound of angry Australians who have had enough of this BS?

  13. vicki

    We have children on TV living Below the Poverty line and asking for Donations to FUND them? Like what? We have a Rich Nation with a small Population and YET WE are becoming so POOR, one must ask how did we let Capitalism DESTROY our NATION and made US not only a population with per Capita the Homeless Nation of the world behind the USA, but a Nation that lets G’ments Dictate and implement illegal LAWS against the People, how did WE let this Happen?

  14. vicki

    And spot on David Bruce.

  15. Rusty

    Excellent summation of how unmoored from real values life has become, from Josephus at the start of this thread. In a world where simulacra of simulacra end up obviating meaning, and where life itself now imitates television/movies instead of the other way around, humans become kind of unreal to themselves. (Almost) all action, speech, presentation, become act-ING, i.e. putting forth of consciously created personas, masks. And not one masquerade, but many for the same individual being, depending on the demands of the situation and moment one finds her/him self in. Indeed, the question arises, essential to postmodern theorising, “Is there a (unified) self at all?”

    The television series in question, one purporting to be about what it is to live in utter poverty, is a primary sample of the postmodern cultural-mental condition we exist inside. It may genuinely want to move the viewer to a new stance, to great empathy and a will to action on the homelessness issue. At least that must be the subtext rationale of the show. And yet, because it is, indeed, a television show at its root, it can’t help but immediately degrade that noble purpose into a somewhat grotesque entertainment. It includes advertising rather at variance with its own subject.

    It would have been so effective simply to observe scenes and images (without dialogue or ads) of those who live terrible deprivation in the streets of our uncaring, hard cities. The insertion of “actors”, even an actual TV actor himself, leads inevitably into degrees of falsity and posing. Not only do the rich who meet the poor act on screen, so too, the poor are made to display personas that belie their anguish and trauma. Sadly, they are obliged to mitigate and manipulate feelings, in a self-presentation before the camera’s overseering eye. They control inner emotion to a large degree, they want to impress, to be dignified within indignity, and bear their burden nobly, or that it has an up-side somehow. They must lie about the innermost self.

    And the emoting, the sympathy of the hired “actors” makes a sharp viewer uncomfortable. It is, on such a medium, unconvincing, and the tears a show, because we have key inside knowledge. These “filthy rich” will return to their wealth in large, warm houses full of capitalist goodies. The very context in which this rather pointless exercise was created, the awareness by people in it of that camera and of a mass audience watching, is why it was bound to traduce its aims even before it began production.

  16. Keitha Granville

    We watched the British version some years ago, the participants were less celebrity than ours, but the premise the same.

    The only thing that I would hope might come from the program is that more people watching are now aware of the dire situations some people call home, and how easy it is for anyone to get to that point given the pathetic support provided by our government. Parliamentary expenses could provide food and housing for all our homeless.

    Write to your MPs, get them to DO something. If this reality TV changes attitudes, all the better.

  17. vicki

    Yep spot on Keitha, as Homelessness in this Country is NOT only NOT ON, it is our SHAME, one of the richest Nations in the WORLD yet we have per capita the largest Homeless how DO WE live with this FACT? I Can’t, as there is NO excuse and the ONLY reason people in this Nation are suffering is because there is NO ACCOUNTABILITY in GOVERNMENT and that is a FACT!

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