The genius of the schtick of Billionaires for Bush, a media campaign and street theater group that came into being during President George W. Bush’s administration, was that they turned subtext into text. Most people who are possessed of a billion or more dollars would not actually be caught saying something like “For much of the 20th century, democratic notions like ‘opportunity for all’ and ‘public services’ dominated American public policy, seriously threatening the privileges of wealth all Billionaires depend on.” Though to be fair, there are always people like Gina Rinehart, the Australian mining heiress who sallied forth earlier this year to declare: “If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working.” But those moments when the facade drops, and people with ugly ideas or worldviews say or act on what they actually believe about people less fortunate them, are rare, and revealing.
Such it apparently was at Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake’s wedding, which apparently featured this video, obtained by Gawker’s John Cook made for them by Justin Huchel, a Los Angeles realtor, in which Huchel asks people who appear to be in such dire economic straights as to be homeless, to pretend to be friends of the couple and to send them congratulations on their wedding, which was held in Italy. There’s no way I can think of to read this video that isn’t horrifying. Is it meant to be mocking the people who appear in it for believing they’re friends with, or have an emotional connection to the famous couple? Is it a riff on the idea that Biel and Timberlake would lower themselves to friendship with people who are poor, intoxicated, or mentally ill? Is it simply that the idea that the juxtaposition of very poor people with the lavish setting of the wedding is uproarious? And this is before we get to the questions of whether the people in the video are actually indigent, and if so, were they paid, and if not, why Huchel thought it was hilarious to pay people to play homeless?
Huchel’s attorney, Michael J. Saltz, sent a takedown notice to Cook, telling him that “Mr. Huchel made a video to be used and exhibited privately at Justin Timberlake’s wedding as a private joke without Mr. Timberlake’s knowledge.” It’s a nice attempt to protect his more famous friend, but it doesn’t actually help all that much. What does it say about Timberlake that Huchel thinks he’s the kind of person who would find this video funny, and not just funny, but funny as part of a celebration of his wedding?
I don’t pretend to know Timberlake, Biel, or Huchel’s hearts. I don’t begrudge them what sounds like it was a pretty fun week-long wedding celebration in Italy (though I have All The Thoughts on Biel’s pink wedding dress). And I have no problem with rich people spending their money on silly things. But unlike a lot of extremely rich people, who can get away with being cheerfully and publicly horrible a la Rinehart, both Timberlake and Biel’s careers depend on people finding them generally endearing, and on audiences developing enough of an attachment to both of them to buy their products. This incident is ugly, but it’s a useful reminder that there’s a gap between the personas both of them sell us, and who they actually are. And that if your subtext would be awfully awkward if it were to turn into text, that maybe it’s time to reevaluate some of your private values.