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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Arwa Mahdawi

Gates, Zuck, Trump: the Ambani pre-wedding proves conspicuous consumption is back, baby!

trump in center with jewels on forehead, next to kushner at right and another man at left with arms folded
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner at the pre-wedding party for Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant on Saturday in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India. Photograph: AP

They say money can’t buy you love, but it can certainly buy you one hell of a pre-wedding. The world’s one percenters are currently nursing their hangovers after three ostentatious days in India spent celebrating the upcoming nuptials of Anant Ambani, the youngest son of Asia’s richest man.

The event, which reportedly cost $120m, was an ode to excess: there was a nine-page dress code, a private concert by Rihanna, and a feast which even Nero might have thought a little over the top.

Twenty-one chefs prepared “75 types of dishes for breakfast, more than 225 types of dishes for lunch, 275 types of dishes for dinner, and 85 types of items … [for] the midnight meal”, explained the Times of India. The idea being that none of the guests – who included the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Ivanka Trump and Bill Gates – would have to suffer the indignity of eating the same food twice.

Obscenely rich people doing outrageously expensive things isn’t exactly unusual. And nobody would expect the son of a billionaire to have a backyard wedding with a homemade cake and a thrifted dress. But what’s remarkable about the Ambani pre-wedding celebration (the actual wedding isn’t until July) is how unashamedly flashy it was. Indeed, it was so over-the-top that even the Daily Mail, not exactly known for its lefty leanings, wrote a horrified piece noting that the extravagant celebrations took place “just yards from where some of the poorest people on earth eke out a living”.

The juxtaposition of multimillion-dollar feasts and Gujarati slums wasn’t the only jarring thing about the celebration. In recent years, there’s been a marked trend towards “stealth wealth”, or “quiet luxury”. The ultra-rich have been a little more muted about their megamillions, signalling their wealth through subtle status symbols rather than flashy labels. There was nothing quiet, however, about the Ambani bash: it felt like a loud-and-proud return to 80s excess and conspicuous consumption.

To be fair, the Ambani family never bought into the understated luxury trend in the first place: they’ve always shouted their wealth from the rooftops. In 2018, for example, Beyoncé performed at Isha Ambani’s pre-wedding celebrations – that bash was estimated to cost around $100m. The family also lives in a 27-storey tower called Antilia, which was the world’s first billion-dollar home. This isn’t your typical McMansion: it has three helipads, a 168-car garage, and a snow room where you can cool down among artificial snowflakes. It also has nine elevators, which is fitting, because the place took bling to a whole new level. “This is a gated community in the sky,” the author Gyan Prakash said as Antilia was being built overlooking the slums of Mumbai. “It is in a way reflective of how the rich are turning their faces away from the city.”

Still, while the Ambanis have always splashed their cash, this wedding does feel like it marks a shift in the zeitgeist. It wasn’t just the bride and groom embracing ostentation: even Zuckerberg and his “philanthropist” wife Priscilla Chan – who have made a big song and dance about how they “want to create a more equal world” – weren’t afraid to show their materialistic side. A viral video showed the pair oohing and ahhing over the groom’s $1m Richard Mille watch. “This watch is fantastic,” Chan enthused. “That’s soo cool!”

Zuckerberg agreed, then added: “You know, I never really wanted to get a watch, but after seeing that, I was like, ‘Watches are cool.’”

Zuck wasn’t the only tech bro going viral. Bill Gates, who is also vocal about how he wants to save the world, posted a video of the internet-famous tea-seller Dolly Chaiwala serving him chai. I think Gates thought the video was a cute celebration of innovation but the whole thing gave off somewhat uncomfortable colonial vibes.

Inequality, supercharged by the pandemic, is at extreme levels and the wealth gap continues to widen. We live, Oxfam recently noted, in a “decade of division” with crisis after crisis widening the gulf between “an oligarchic few and the vast majority”. Aren’t those oligarchic few worried about rubbing their riches in the faces of the vast majority? Aren’t they worried about the optics of feasting in luxury while even middle-class Americans struggle to afford groceries? They’ve certainly been warned that they ought to be worried about the optics of inequality. At an event in London last year, members of the global elite were told there was a “real risk of actual insurrection” if inequality continued to widen and they should watch out for “pitchforks and torches”.

If the garishness of the Ambani pre-wedding demonstrates anything, however, it’s that those born with silver spoons in their mouths aren’t particularly worried about pitchforks. And why would they be? They’ve all got underground doomsday bunkers to hide away in if things go pear-shaped. The Ambani antics feel like the death knell of stealth wealth, a sign that billionaires can’t be bothered to pretend to care about inequality any more and are shamelessly embracing loud luxury. Again, the 1,200-person party was just a warm-up for the big event in July – God knows what they’re going to spend on that or how the wedding could possibly top the pre-party. Taylor Swift crooning as tech tycoons throw commoners to the tigers? Bonfires of $100 bills? Young blood transfusions to perk partygoers up after a long night of dancing? We paupers can only wait and see.

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