Photo: Courtesy of the author
In ‘Misfortune and Fame,’ Paul Berton Shows You’re Richer Than You Think
In a Q&A, the author talks about the link between celebrity and wealth, the gap between rich and poor, and a new class – "the utterly shameless" / BY Ian Coutts / November 2nd, 2023
You don’t want to be rich. Oh, you may think you do, and heaven knows you’re told that often enough, but you really don’t want it. Being famous is just as bad. And rich and famous? That’s the absolute worst.
That’s the gist of journalist Paul Berton’s latest book, Misfortune and Fame. In 10 chapters, the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator newspaper outlines precisely why being rich isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Among other things, no matter how much money you have, you’ll still get old and die, just like everybody else; in case we’ve forgotten, money can’t buy everything; and rich people often become famous, which the author, the son of Canadian journalist and author Pierre Berton, witnessed first-hand as a kid. Berton makes his points by drawing on real-life examples, skewering everyone from penny-pinching billionaire J. Paul Getty to the Kardashians to Donald Trump, the living embodiment of what happens when you pursue fame and fortune at the expense of everything else.
Witty and well-written, Misfortune and Fame has a serious intent behind the cataloguing of the downsides of wealth (and celebrity). Berton thinks our fixation on getting rich diverts us from the problems of the poor. We need to accept, as he says, “that most of us are rich.” If we have shelter and food, that’s what really matters. And if we don’t do something about the widening gap between the haves and the have nots, he believes the result could be an uprising as bloody as the French Revolution of 1789 or Russian Revolution of 1917.
In a Q&A with Zoomer, the author talks about how his father’s fame gave him inside look at celebrity and money, why everyone thinks a big bank account is the key to happiness and how being rich is all relative.
Ian Coutts: What got you started on writing about this?
Paul Berton: I’ve been interested in consumerism for a long time, and this book kind of emerged from the writing of Shopomania, which I published last year. Shopomania was about the consumption of stuff. This is more about just plain consumption of everything else.
IC: As you mentioned, you grew up rich-ish and near to fame. Do you think your early awareness helped spear you on to write this?
PB: Rich-ish, I like that term. I think it gave me an insight into fame. I don’t think it gave me any insight into wealth or poverty, either way. The book, even though it’s not stated, is as much about poverty as it is about wealth. As I say in the book, I think my father accepted the benefits of fame and tolerated the drawbacks. That was helpful, but I think my observation of the rest of the world is that they accept only one side of it and not the other.
IC: You mentioned that you actually interviewed rich people for the book. What did they think about this?
PB: I didn’t interview very many rich people on the record, because most of them don’t feel comfortable talking about it. The rich people I interviewed, most of them are rather more thoughtful about it than we might imagine. I don’t think the likes of Donald Trump, since he’s an obvious example, is aware of it at all, but I think that most people who have wealth in Canada, let’s say, are pretty aware of their lucky lot in life. And they’re also aware of their responsibilities to use that wealth for good.
IC: Maybe part of this discomfort comes about because we all think we aren’t really rich. We feel we’re just middle class.
PB: That’s the central question of the book. Is one rich? And as I say in the book, in my opinion, the definition of rich is simply not being poor. Having a house of any size and being able to pay our bills. The problem with humans is we always want more. And so, for most rich people, it’s never enough. Studies will show us about $1 million is more than enough, but of course most people think that they’ll need 10 or 20 or a 100.
IC: Almost everybody is uncomfortable about talking about money, aren’t they?
PB: I agree everyone’s uncomfortable talking about money, and really rich people are particularly uncomfortable talking about it for pretty good reasons, because they’ve had the experience of being perceived as rich and they see it as a disadvantage. Poor people see it as an advantage –they [the rich] get the best seats in the restaurants and they seem to get better service in society in general.
IC: It’s more than a perception.
PB: It is for sure more than a perception. But from the rich person’s standpoint, it’s a burden that only they can understand.
IC: At one point you say “Fame attracts money. Money attracts fame. Fame attracts fame. Money attracts money.” Sometimes you’re talking about the rich, and sometimes about the famous. They aren’t completely interchangeable, are they?
PB: No, there are a lot of famous people who are poorer than we think, mostly because they’ve squandered their fortunes. There are a lot of rich people who are lucky enough to be not famous. I would include most bankers or investment bankers in that category. But, generally speaking, once we become rich, we become more interesting. Poor people are just as interesting, but for some reason poor people don’t attract the attention. Just to use myself as an example, my fame, such as it is, is limited, but it helps me sell this book. So, presumably it makes me more money – although the book business doesn’t really. [laughs]
IC: On the question of fame, at one point you write: “Finally, a growing hallmark of the twenty-first century is the growth of an entirely new class of people: the utterly shameless.”
PB: I think a lot of it is motivated by money, but increasingly in our time, it’s motivated just by a desire to be relevant. Because we live in an age of social media where so many of us are desirous of attention, we’ve forgotten about what is that motivates us. We just want people to see us and hear us, the same way six kids around the Sunday night dinner table want to compete for attention from their parents.
IC: We see people we think are rich, but isn’t some of it a house of mirrors? For example, you write about Trump and his tax returns and say the reason why he doesn’t want them revealed is because we’ll know he’s not as rich as he claims. With people like Paris Hilton or the Kardashians, I am not convinced these really are rich people.
PB: I think that they’re a hell of a lot richer than most of us. I don’t think that they think they’re rich enough, because they have adopted a lifestyle which requires a constant infusion of money. Paris Hilton, I wrote in the book, might make a million dollars for a single appearance at a party. I don’t know if she does, but she presumably has expenses related to her various homes and her stuff and her bodyguards and her cooks and her chauffeurs and whatever it is that rich people spend their money on. I think it adds up quite quickly.
IC:The way that fame and money have become entangled, do you think Trump is the culmination?
PB: I sure do. He’s the result of all of this.
IC: When you go through the various drawbacks to being rich in Misfortune and Fame, it was interesting to learn that the rich are often more isolated than the rest of us.
PB: Well, it comes back the fact that rich people can’t really share. They’re embarrassed to share their opulent lifestyles with people who can’t afford that themselves. Instead, they end up sharing their secrets with their employees. Their chauffeurs and their bodyguards. In the book, I used several examples of that, and they become very sad in the end.
IC: Hence, the estates with pools, home theatres and bowling alleys and everything else where they try to create the trappings of normal life in isolation.
PB: I guess the question is what is normal in the modern world? Every year the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. So, what is normal?
IC: At one point you say, “While most of us worry about making money, rich people worry about keeping it. It’s stressful, it’s complicated and it’s risky.” Would you say this anxiety is one of the defining features of rich people?
PB: I would, but this would include people like me in my modest retirement fund. Like I say in the book, I can pay my bills for the next month or two, but I’m not really sure about much past that [laughs]. There are some people who don’t have enough money to buy dinner tonight, and then there are some who don’t think they can make the payment on their car three months from now, and then there are those who are worried about the mortgage renewal on their house a year or two from now. Then there are the people who are worried about their yachts. So, I think it’s all on a continuum.
IC: You seem to have a softer spot for the old rich.
PB: I am not sure I have any more sympathy for them, but I appreciate the fact that they’ve been rich for so long that they’re no longer intrigued by the empty rewards in terms of consumer goods that the nouveau riche are impressed with.
IC: At one point you say, “Would I like to be richer? Perhaps. Would I like to be more famous? Maybe.”
PB: We all want to be relevant and we all want to be rich, until we become too relevant or too rich. That is the question: How much is too much?
IC: Do you think that the success of a show like Succession represents a growing skepticism about the virtue of tremendous wealth?
PB: [Laughs] I don’t think that there’s any skepticism about the benefits of tremendous wealth. Every human wants to be tremendously wealthy, even in spite of all the lessons that are in this book, and many others, telling them that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.
IC: Thinking back on my own life, I grew up fairly secure, and rich people weren’t as impressive. Do you think that the current fixation on them is in part connected to our own insecurity?
PB: That’s an interesting idea. I’m not sure. I think one of the reasons we are intrigued by the rich today more than ever is because they are so much more visible, because the world celebrates not just wealth, but the treasures that wealth can buy. This is the marketing and retail world we live in.
IC: I have a friend who lives in Silicon Valley in California, and she says the rich guys there, and there are a lot of them, aren’t really interested in flashy cars or big houses. What they seek are experiences.
PB: I’ve read all those stories too, and I think the reason they go helicopter skiing, or they go climbing mountains, or they go deep sea diving, or they go work helping poor people in exotic lands is because they’ve bought everything they possible could.
IC: Getting back to the connection between wealth and celebrity, we can’t understand how some people get rich. Not Bill Gates, say, or certainly the Kardashians. What did they do? So it seems celebrity is the key?
PB: That’s why I connect them so often in the book, and it’s why it’s growing. It’s why everyone wants a social media profile, going crazy making Instagram videos or TikTok videos or reality shows or whatever it is that people are doing. For some bizarre reason, it’s making money.
IC: In the conclusion you say “… we are still rich. And we are not as poor as we are led to believe by marketing companies, influencers, Hollywood producers, or neighbours, the Kardashians and the media in general.” Is that the general message of the book?
PB: Absolutely. The rich have the same kind of problems as we do, they just have money to solve them or to try to solve them. But money doesn’t solve health problems and money doesn’t solve family squabbles and mental illness or loneliness or any of that. Let’s just use back pain for example. If you have back pain for three days or a week and it goes away at the end of that week, then you’re a very, very happy person, and you’d rather have that than a million dollars. When I talk in the book about [the Greek philosopher] Epicurus, he was a fan of saying the more stuff you have, the more trouble that will come with it. So, it’s better to lead a simple life.
IC: Here’s an interesting story I’d love to hear your thoughts on. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway where drinking in a bar, when Scott Fitzgerald said to Hemingway: “The rich are different from you and me.” To which Hemingway is said to have replied, “Yes, they have more money.” Who do you think was right?
PB: [Laughs] I give them equal points.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.