Picks and Pans Review: Circus of Ambition

updated 03/05/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/05/1990 01:00AM

by John Taylor

Taylor's collection of essays on the '80s, the decade we're all learning to love to hate, is social commentary with bite. There are no surprises, no grand revelations—is there really anything new to say about the ascension of greed, power and money in the past decade?—but Taylor, a New York City New York City journalist, puts it all in historical perspective, comparing the era with the Gilded Age that followed the Civil War.

In the center ring is Taylor's thesis that the '80s saw the defeat—after decades of struggle—of the concept that wealth is a responsibility, that inheriting money also means inheriting a debt to the community. What replaced such ideas, Taylor says, is a "self-congratulatory" attitude toward wealth displayed by the nouveau riche.

The material Taylor has to draw from is very rich any way you look at it. He devotes a whole chapter to the case of artist Mark Kostabi, who went from painting his own works, to having assistants help him with his paintings, to having assistants paint his paintings following Kostabi's instructions, to finally having assistants paint all of his paintings, sometimes without his even being there to advise.

But the author has the most fun describing the Nouvelle Society, as John Fair-child termed the parvenus who bull-marketed into New York City's social scene in the past 10 years. He also writes at length of such "Ruthless Women" as Susan Gutfreund, an ex-flight attendant whose husband, John, is a thriving, ruthless investment banker. In 1983 she bought a huge Christmas tree and had it hoisted up the side of a Manhattan apartment building to her penthouse. Later she and her husband complained that the tree "necessitated the removal of almost all of our living room furniture as well as a window and door to get the tree inside, and resulted in approximately seven moving men being in our apartment for most of the day."

The flaw in Taylor's book is his treatment of women. He is writing about power games that women have long been excluded from, so it's not surprising that female capitalists don't figure prominently in many of the insider-trading scandals he chronicles. But the only women in Circus are gold-digging, manipulative wives of powerful men. Carolyne Roehm, wife of leveraged buy-out king Henry Kravis, is a respected fashion designer, yet Taylor dismisses her work as "a mockery of real labor, of the monotonous, repetitive work performed by the masses to earn a living."

And Taylor devotes a full section to filmmakers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Flashdance), yet he ignores women in show business, missing a chance to discuss, say, Oprah Winfrey's runaway success with psychobabble or Jane Fonda's exercise empire.

The decade had more than enough supercilious behavior to go around. Let's give credit—or assign blame—where it's due. (Warner, $19.95)

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