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Living Ever Larger

How Wretched Excess Became a Way of Life in Southern California

June 09, 2002|PATRICK J. KIGER

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," the poet William Blake wrote two centuries ago. Easy for him to say. Blake never inched along in the seemingly perpetual traffic snarl of the 405, behind the wheel of a $40,000 sport-utility vehicle that looked impressive on the lot but which, once you got it out on the asphalt, was dwarfed by even bigger SUVs. You're staring in your rearview mirror, for example, at a massive Ford Excursion, 19 feet long, with 7,000 pounds of metallic hypertrophy, chrome grillwork gleaming at you like the teeth of some primordial beast.

You shift uneasily in your seat, the fabric of your fashionably baggy jeans chafing against the lush leather upholstery and take another sip of your Starbucks Venti cappuccino. That 2,000-calorie lunch--the one you gobbled off the extra-large 12 1/2-inch plate that has replaced the 10 1/2-incher as the restaurant industry standard--is rumbling around in your stomach like steroid-bloated professional wrestlers locked in violent embrace. You fiddle distractedly with the volume knob on your 400-watt stereo system as Long Beach rapper Warren G. intones, "I want it all, all, all, all." Easy for him to say. You've already had it all, or nearly so, but you want more. Cathedral ceilings. A 64-inch TV. A pair of $160 Nike Men's Shox VC sneakers, the ones that look like NASA standard issue.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 360 words Type of Material: Correction
Hughes' bungalow rentals--A June 9 L.A. Times Magazine story that accompanied the article "Living Ever Larger'' incorrectly stated that Howard Hughes had rented bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1942 for wife Jean Peters and the storage of blueprints of the Spruce Goose. He rented the bungalows for Peters and the blueprints in the 1950s and '60s.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 07, 2002 Home Edition Times Sunday Magazine Part A Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 20 inches; 740 words Type of Material: Correction
A story that accompanied the article "Living Ever Larger" (June 9) incorrectly stated that Howard Hughes had rented bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1942 for wife Jean Peters and the storage of blueprints of the Spruce Goose. He rented the bungalows for Peters and the blueprints in the 1950s and '60s.

There was a time when wretched excess was the exclusive province of divine-right monarchs and mega-millionaires. To be sure, the rich still lead lives of otherworldly extravagance--for example, Aaron Spelling's 45-room, 56,000-square-foot Holmby Hills mansion (its footprint about as big as a football field), or the underwater stereo system that entertains swimmers in Bill Gates' pool. Lisa Kerkorian is demanding $320,000 a month in child support for her 4-year-old daughter from her ex-husband, MGM mogul Kirk Kerkorian, and most people would find excessive the $14,000 a month she says the child needs for parties and play dates and the $436 a month she needs for pet care.

But today the profligate rich are just one end of the continuum of surfeit that stretches from imported suede-lined dresser drawers and Range Rovers with imported Italian mobile espresso makers to the guy who enhances his trailer with a working fake-log fireplace and a massive satellite dish. Wretched excess has become a truly egalitarian motif, one that cuts across class and cultural lines. Call it the Big Gulp Culture, because it manifests itself not just in opulence but also in sheer outlandish size. All around you, everything--your car, your house, your appliances, the food you eat, the entertainment you enjoy--is oversized, overstuffed, overdone, over-elaborate and, at times, bewilderingly overwhelming.

"When do you have enough in America? Never!" says French anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille, who has spent much of the past two decades in this country analyzing the American consumer. "It's a culture of excess, a permanently nouveau riche mentality. We want the biggest, the most extreme of everything."

Indeed, the super-size Zeitgeist also has spilled into some seemingly sacrosanct aspects of our existence. If you go to religious services on Sunday, it may be at the Forum or another arena-sized mega-church. Your kids come home from school lugging gargantuan backpacks. The trend seems unstoppable, even in the face of economic uncertainty and the cataclysmic events of the past year. A survey published in Advertising Age in March, for example, showed that even after the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 60% of consumers' spending habits remained unchanged. (In some ways, our anxiety actually stimulated the urge to acquire. Big Toys Coach Works, a Corona-based maker of customized vehicles, suddenly saw a jump in demand for its line of armored SUVs, such as a $175,000 version of the Excursion designed to withstand bullets from AK-47s and .44 magnums.)

At the same time, it's hard not to worry about the consequences of living so large--obesity-related diseases, accidents caused by the massiveness of our vehicles, mountains of credit card debt, the environmental carnage we're wreaking by gobbling up resources. You've got to wonder how much of the enmity from people elsewhere in the world is a result of our excessive ways. And as you look down the road from 6 1/2 feet up, you've also got to wonder: How big a gulp do you have to take to finally feel satisfied?

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