Ostentation goes underground in the '90s

April 23, 1992|By Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES HC B — LOS ANGELES -- Wendy Goldberg's Rolls-Royce is in the garage. Her jewels are in the bank. Hard times? Hardly. It's just that one day, "it all began to seem a little bit much," she says.

When William Lloyd Davis turned 50 three years ago, 300 people came to his birthday soiree. This year the real estate magnate was feted by just three guests -- his kids. The menu featured osso buco. His wife cooked.

Mitchell Cannold used to keep a Mercedes-Benz and a Range Rover in New York and a BMW convertible in Los Angeles. He flew first class, barely glanced at his dinner checks. But these days, the bi-coastal producer of "Dirty Dancing" drives a Ford Explorer in New York and rents -- rents! -- a Dodge Shadow in Los Angeles. He flies coach, questions "absolutely every bill" and is "far more interested in spending money on experience, on learning things," he says.

Fearful of crime, tugged by family and conscience, chastened by soak-the-rich campaign rhetoric and shareholder revolts, America's wealthy are backing off from the conspicuous consumption that, just a few years ago, so clearly delineated the haves from the have-nots.

Passe are the lavish ball gowns, the jewels and furs, the Cartier clocks and crystal trinkets as party favors. Banished are the Rolls-Royces, the Rolex watches, the Dom Perignon, the six-course dinners, the caviar.

"People feel foolish if they become too opulent," said Ms. Goldberg, whose husband, Leonard, is the former head of 20th Century Fox. "It's just not good taste when you know there are all these homeless people and we're fighting for our lives with AIDS."

Meanwhile, demographers and market researchers say, a new genre of status symbols has come to the fore, replacing conspicuous consumption with the talismans of what one pollster has dubbed "Stealth Wealth." Mid-priced four-wheel-drive vehicles. Free-range poultry and farm-raised fish. Sensible clothing. Industrial-grade brown diamonds, generously billed as "champagne" or "cognac" in jewelry ads.

And less tangible but most valuable of all, according to opinion polls, is control over your time -- when you work and when you play.

"There's been an incredible move from external signs of status to internal ones -- of what works for me vs. what impresses you," said Watts Wacker, an official with the Yankelovich Clancy Shulman research firm.

"The wealth is still there. It's just less ostentatious in its delivery, and many of the things these people are doing to manifest their wealth are being done underground."

If the rich were revered in the 1980s, they are on the hot seat now. Shareholders have become ever more critical of fat compensation packages for corporate executives. Dueling tax increases on the super rich have been put forward by at least two Democratic presidential candidates. Meanwhile, the influential baby boom generation has undergone a gradual change in priorities, as children, mortgages and the specter of retirement have taken precedence in their lives.

Ostentation can also be hazardous to your health.

Suzanne Marx -- a socially prominent civic volunteer who now works as director of finance for the Ronald Reagan Presidential

Library -- says that on the charitable circuit "people who can well afford" to wear real jewels are foregoing them "because of all the robberies."

Such sentiments are underscored by recent opinion research that indicates a renewed appreciation among the affluent for intangible signs of accomplishment and deeper symbols of worth -- for free time, an understanding of the environment, a social conscience, a knowledgeable eye.

For example, in a 1991 Yankelovich survey of U.S. households earning $75,000 or more each year, material possessions -- things like "having a million dollars" and "owning an expensive car" -- ranked far below such accomplishments as "being in control of your life" as symbols of status and success.

"In the 80s, if you wanted to impress the neighbors, you parked your BMW in the driveway," said Eric Miller, publisher of the Long Island-based research newsletter Affluent Markets Alert. "In the '90s you'll park your rear in a hammock."

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