We love to see the rich suffer. To see that money doesn’t make them happy or ward off tragedy.
TV productions about the rich and tragic are practically a cottage industry. There have been too many about the Kennedys to count, and the list includes everyone from the Vanderbilts to the British royal family.
And we’ve reveled in fictional rich families as well in shows like “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Downton Abbey.”
Ah, rich-people problems.
We’ll get another chance starting Sunday with the premiere of “Trust: The Getty Family Saga” (11 p.m., FX), a 10-part series about the events surrounding the 1973 kidnapping and mutilation of J. Paul Getty III.
Yes, it covers the same events as last year’s film “All the Money In the World,” although this version “inspired by actual events” tells it differently. Not just longer; it’s an alternate version of how the kidnapping happened. The “Trust” narrative is based on Charles Fox’s book “Uncommon Youth: The Gilded Life and Tragic Times of J. Paul Getty III,” as well as “a lot of research” by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), who penned nine of 10 “Trust” episodes.
And Beaufoy thinks he knows why, 45 years later, this story continues to intrigue us.
“I think wealth is always fascinating to those of us who don’t have it,” he said. “And there’s a kind of terrible schadenfreude about watching the most rich people in the world collapsing around you.”
Set in 1973, “Trust” revolves around oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Donald Sutherland) and his grandson J. Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson). The grandfather sequestered himself on his English estate with four mistresses, lots of servants and a lion, and was generally disappointed with the five children he’d fathered with four of the five wives he’d married and divorced. He was one of the richest men in the world, but he complained about the price of a newspaper and installed a pay phone for guests at Sutton Place.
The grandson was a 16-year-old wild child who lived a life of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll in Rome, where he ended up owing money to the wrong people. When his grandfather wouldn’t give him the $6,000 to get out of trouble, young Getty staged his own kidnapping. When his grandfather refused to pay a ransom, the grandson was essentially sold to the Mafia and things got serious.
And, yes, it cost “Little Paul” an ear.
“Trust” walks a fine line between fascinating and repellent, and it’s often the latter. The series opens with J. Paul Getty’s oldest son, George, killing himself in a particularly gruesome way — and the old man’s biggest concern is covering up the fact that it was a suicide.
It’s impossible to identify with J. Paul Getty, who’s carelessly loathsome. It’s tough to identify with entitled brat J. Paul Getty III, although you certainly feel for him when he gets in way over his head.
In the three episodes screened for critics, the only really sympathetic character is Little Paul’s mother, Gail Getty (two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank), who doesn’t appear until Episode 2. Long divorced from J. Paul Getty Jr. and out of money, she’s the only one who really wants to help her son — but she put him in the situation, choosing a bad boyfriend over him.
Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (”Slumdog Millionaire”) helms the first three episodes, and it’s not an entirely successful effort. The reteaming of Boyle and Beaufoy gives us an Episode 2 in which style triumphs over story. The narrative is nearly lost amid time jumps, and one of the characters, investigator James Fletcher Chase (Brendan Fraser), breaks the fourth wall and starts talking directly to viewers. Which is weird.
It’s more-or-less back to normal in Episode 3, but you have to wonder how many viewers are going to give up on “Trust” in that second episode.
Beaufoy clearly has sympathy for the Gettys and the super-rich in general.
“They have the difficulty of being born ridiculously wealthy. They don’t have to do anything. They don’t have to get out of bed,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s a curse of the Gettys. … I think if you don’t have to get out of bed and do something every morning, that’s a kind of curse.”
It’s a tough sell to expect us to watch rich people who can’t find purpose in life.