America has a long history of secret societies for the wealthy which are very much a part of the institutions that have given rise to their most powerful. It appears much of the general appeal to them is the way it shows that you're capable of keeping secrets.
You may hear stories about the Hellfire Club and rumours of true debauchery that not even Hunter Thompson could approximate. Perhaps the most damning is Yale's Skull and Bones, which has housed the skull of Geronimo since Prescott Bush robbed his grave. There are even rumours of his son, George, ejaculating into the skull, as all members were made to do on initiation.
These stories, at least the theft, are a matter of public record, with the Apache tribe suing to reclaim the skull many times over the decades.
But these societies are not something that falls in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 on Reduced Inequalities. This is not exactly possible in a world where past leaders of institutions, such as both the CIA and the White House, were members. Or where William F. Buckley, the conservative writer who founded the country’s National Review, sued to block the admission of women into a society when he was a member.
At the very least, it doesn’t inspire much confidence. At worst, it sets off a wave of conspiracy theories.
It also featured heavily in horror throughout history; the idea that our secret societies housed even deeper and darker secrets. This was a significant theme throughout the 80s, but it got more pronounced after the Wall Street crash of '87. The tycoon or mogul became a monster or a joke. When there was blood in the water, Gordon Gekkos went to prison.
In a possibly worse indictment, John Schlesinger's The Believers features a Donald Trumpesque construction mogul who sacrifices children for power.
In a strange way, works like Schlesinger’s and Society bear some of the same responsibility for the QAnon conspiracy theory as White Squall, where the cult takes its motto. Eventually, repeating the same fictions can bleed into reality - particularly when someone of means wants them to.
Brian Yuzna’s Society, however, is a much more interesting - if flawed - work. Later films like The Skulls would address Skull and Bones more directly, but Yuzna moves the action to the other side of the country, the final frontier of Beverly Hills.
Society opens with William Johnson Cory’s “Eton Boating Song”, the oft-parodied diddy written by a master at Eton College for celebratory occasions. When it was written in 1863, it wasn’t long before obscene versions of the lyrics appeared. But it’s unlikely anyone back then could have envisioned the obscenities Yuzna had in mind.
Billy Whitney (Billy Warlock), like any stock character on 90210, doesn't really have any ideas of his own. He's a catastrophizing teen in 80s L.A. The reason why he tells his therapist at the start that he feels something bad is coming but he can't define it is obvious.
He's not a sharp guy, and there's no need for him to be. The problems of a well-off 80s kid really don't amount to much. Today, he'd be on The O.C. or Gossip Girl.
This is until his sister's ex-boyfriend brings him a recording of his family discussing their "coming out" at the “shunting”. On the recording, it sounds as if the family is involved in some kind of murderous orgy.
It's a shame he didn't get them on video, in all their deformed, monstrous, nightmarish glory. In the movie, the rich, in L.A. are not just rich; they're a different class of species entirely that have existed for centuries and tends to feed on, well, lesser beings.
Like the actual wealthy, among their own, they don't exactly make their transgressions secret once Billy discovers them, with his nemesis just outright explaining how the orgy works with a smirk on his face. Once you’re in, you’re in.
What Society does exceptionally well is wall you in with the rest of the micro community of the uber rich in which its set. The paranoia is almost suffocating, to the point where anything else feels foreign. When the sister's ex-boyfriend dies in a mysterious car wreck early, his funeral is sparsely attended.
The boyfriend was Jewish, as evident from the star in the synagogue. He was an abandoned outsider to the WASP-monster society that had overrun Beverly Hills.
The last act of Society turns in Less Than Zero via Troma films, as it ends in a gory, messy orgy of wealth, excess and truly sickening make-up effects by Screaming Mad George.
The film was so notoriously bloody and messy on set that Yuzna hung a sign on a door while filming the climax that read, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter”. And while the creativity on display is impressive, you're left wanting more. Not more guts, but more ideas.
There's too much about the society we don't know, such as what makes them so successful in our world. Perhaps their goal is exactly the same as most Americans and somehow along the way they've been indoctrinated to follow that particular dream of wealth and material success as opposed to living well - with consequences to individual well-being and justice in society.
Perhaps they’re not that far removed from the Skull and Bones or any of the other 41 secret societies at Yale, where the wealthy of the United States are educated and shaped. That may make them all that much more terrifying.
To learn more about SDG 10 and the other 17 goals which the United Nations has set out to make the world a more sustainable place for everyone, visit here.