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THOMPSON: Extraordinary wealth leads to extravagant spending

January 01, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

While F. Scott Fitzgerald penned this more than 90 years ago in a short story titled “The Rich Boy,” he might be amazed at how well his words still hold.

No one reading this likely lives or even knows someone who lives with the extraordinary wealth that some do on this planet. An item I read in The New York Times last week about a US $301 million home sparked this column, and I started researching those who live or lived and died, well…extravagantly.

In my travels over the years I have seen a thing or two that qualified as ridiculous examples of extravagance…on most every continent. It turns out the ultra-wealthy have always been with us. They all lived well. Some were or are somewhat conservative…and some were or are absurdly ostentatious.

It’s hard to rank wealth today or in the past…it is an imprecise endeavour at best. Still, here are some things to ponder. Bill Gates is worth about US $90 billion…and has been ranked by forbes.com as the world’s wealthiest person four consecutive years…and 18 of the past 23 years.

But, it’s a fluid ranking…and in any given real-time accounting…Gates changes places with Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame or Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway. Americans hold eight of the top ten spots of wealthy folks…with Spanish and Mexican tycoons nailing down the number four and six slots, respectively.

There are 2,043 Billionaires worldwide…up 233 from just a year ago. About 100 Canadians are Billionaires, and about 550 Americans have reached these financially stratospheric heights.

Most of these Billionaires do some extraordinarily good things for people worldwide…and the planet itself. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, for example, each have foundations that will leave the world better than they found it. Indeed, these two are among 164 Billionaires who have signed the “Giving Pledge”…donating at least half their wealth to philanthropic causes.

That said…none of these folks live in fixer-uppers or worry about their next hydro bills. Buffett might be the most down to earth…living in the same house he bought in 1958 for US $31,000…and valued at nearly US $3 million today.

I discovered - somewhat to my surprise - that all of today’s Billionaires look like slackers alongside the ultra-rich who preceded them. For example, when adjusted for inflation, both John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were four times richer than Bill Gates.

Also, the 1800s brought about tremendous family wealth - what we now call old money - with the Du Ponts, Astors, Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Vanderbilts dominating life in America. Like royalty, they were all related. In Europe you had real royalty…and the Rothschilds.

So, with that bit of context, let’s consider a few of what might seem crazy extravagances of the ultra-rich. Prepare to shake your head.

There are many paths to wealth, but in Saudi Arabia there is one…oil. And if you are Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, you have enough oil to trade for just about anything.

So, he bought Chateau Louis XIV in Louveciennes, France - a seven-year project of developer Emad Khashoggi, nephew of Saudi arms-dealer Adnan Khashoggi, and a noted Billionaire himself. Khashoggi - the developer - tore down Chateau du Camp, a 17th-century manse, and built Chateau Louis XIV…with all the appearance and materials of the Chateau de Versailles…but with every known modern convenience.

“The fountains, sound system, lights and whisper-silent air conditioning can all be controlled remotely by iPhone,” according to The New York Times.

Of course, it also includes a wine cellar equal to most wineries, a movie theatre, a rotunda with exquisite frescoes and a moat with a huge glass wall to view giant sturgeon and koi. The elaborate 57-acre walled estate has the security of the White House and is maintained year-round, including the formal gardens, for the few weeks a year it is inhabited.

But when you have money - or oil - to burn, I guess US $ 301 million is a drop in the bucket. You see, the Crown Prince has made even more extravagant purchases in the past couple years, including a yacht - Pegasus VIII - that cost US $ 494 million…it came with a state-of-the-art helicopter. The helipad converts easily to a golf driving range and putting green when the chopper is gone.

Most recently, the Crown Prince bought “Salvator Mundi,” a painting by Leonardo da Vinci for US $ 450.3 million…the highest price ever paid for a work of art. Apparently, as Mel Brooks once said, “It’s good to be the King.” Or, in this case, the Crown Prince.

But even the Crown Prince’s lavishly decadent house can’t compare with Mukesh Ambani’s 27-story modern skyscraper home in Mumbai, India. The founder of Reliance Industries built it a couple years ago for US $1 billion.

It get’s a little sticky when deciding what’s over the top and what’s not, of course. The Taj Mahal would cost US $2 billion to build today. But, it’s not a home…it’s a mausoleum. And, like most monuments…the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty…it can’t be sold.

But you don’t have to be a Saudi Prince to live extravagantly. Plenty of celebrities have found utterly ridiculous ways to spend money. You can almost categorize the stupid ways. Teeth, for example. Rihanna, Kanye West and Madonna are among scores of celebrities who have encrusted their teeth with gold and diamonds…often costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Reclusive and eccentric Howard Hughes bought a television station in Las Vegas…not as an investment…but so that he could control the programming. He liked to watch movies late at night when others slept.

Of course, it’s hard to match drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s offer to pay Columbia’s entire national debt…US $10 billion at the time. There are thousands…maybe tens of thousands of absurd examples of extravagance through the ages. And, no doubt, it will continue.

But, I’d like to think that most people I know…if they won a $60 million LottoMax...would spend it wisely…doing more good than not. I would. No diamond encrusted teeth for me, thank you. Maybe F. Scott was right, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.  His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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