How Succession took the glamour out of being rich

Succession returns on Monday for its final season

Darren Mooney

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” stockbroker Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) famously opines in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

Of course, Wall Street’s argument is that greed is far from good. Gekko is the villain. At the end of the film, he is heading to prison for insider trading and securities fraud. Still, many viewers were struck by a combination of Douglas’ sleazy charisma and Stone’s alluring portrayal of wealth. Wall Street had as much influence on financial traders as The Godfather had on the mob.

In the wake of the film, trading floors were packed with suspenders, slicked-back hair and copies of Gekko’s favourite book, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser recalls young traders claiming to be inspired by the movie, lamenting that it “gave these people hope to become greater asses than they may already be”.

Wall Street is not the only capitalist critique to become a favourite among those it set out to condemn. When Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street hit cinemas, London banks held private screenings for their employees. François Truffaut argued that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film, because any depiction inherently glorifies the act. Perhaps the same is true of obscene wealth.

This is what is interesting about Succession, returning for its fourth and final season on Sky Atlantic. From creator Jesse Armstrong, the show focuses on the Roy family, an American media dynasty that has frequently been compared in the press to the Murdochs. It follows the battle between patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his children over control of the empire.

Despite an impressive budget that allows the show to shoot on location in Iceland, Croatia and Tuscany, Succession is the rare depiction of the super-rich that somehow manages to make that level of opulence appear deeply unpleasant. Armstrong and his team have managed to create a compellingly watchable portrait of this wealthy dynasty that never glorifies that level of affluence.

The show presents wealth is a trap. It keeps Logan’s children tethered to him, even as he inflicts abuses and indignities upon them. There is no escape. The show’s glass skyscraper and bullet-proof facades often seem like cages, making the cast seem like animals on display. There’s a banality to it all; the corridors of power are still just corridors.

Wealth is almost an obligation. Characters in Succession are never less happy than at lavish parties. Social climber Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) abandons his oldest friends to attend an exclusive underground party, and then mopes at the bar with his subordinate Greg (Nicholas Braun), wondering when their lift home is arriving.

“Greg, I’m having the time of my life,” Tom boasts, not convincing anyone. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) has a breakdown at his 40th birthday party when he can’t find the gift from his kids. In the fourth season premiere, Logan sneaks out of his own birthday party to go to an anonymous diner. “Nothing tastes like it used to,” he complains.

Wealth cannot protect these characters from the indignities of life. Logan has a stroke at the end of the very first episode. At a shareholder meeting, he’s almost driven mad by a urinary tract infection. After a bender, Kendall wakes up to discover he’s soiled his sheets. Wealth does not make these people glamorous.

Succession also uses a distinct visual language. Armstrong envisaged the show as “something like Dallas meets Festen”, specifically referencing the “documentary-derived kind of camerawork” of Thomas Vinterberg’s independent European family drama. “Succession’s camera style is iconic,” explains colourist Sam Daley. “Handheld, snap zooms, searching, finding the actors rather than placing the camera in front of them.”

The result is a show that, in the words of cinematographer Patrick Capone, never looks “too cinema”. It lends the show a disorienting and uncanny quality. Greed may or may not be good, but on Succession, it’s certainly never glorious.

‘Succession’ will air weekly on Sky Atlantic and Now from Monday