Trust Issues: Screening The House of Getty


Danny Boyle’s TV drama portrait of the House of Getty and the kidnap of its youngest member illuminates the emotional deficits, and Midas touch, often interwoven in the glory of dynastic success.

Dynasties and families. Co-existing generations interwoven with continuing imprints of historic success and compounded legacy. The matriarch or patriarch and heir the grand children, and in this filtering own structure, a triangular shape is formed. The founders often hold the title of pioneer, superseding others in their chosen field so extravagantly they are allowed the singular and often toxic social benefit to construct private kingdoms between their members. Although possessing a kind of brilliance the weight of creative and commercial success of this elder as they live on, seems sure fire a means of stifling the younger, smothering them with the identity and expectations to do similar, whilst conscripting their energy as fuel for the past success.


 As ‘Trust‘ Boyle’s portrait of the Getty family in the 1970s displays, a dynasty is a body in constant need for re-invigoration, or the dynamism which first founded and forged them expires - or, in Donald Sutherland’s portrayal of John Paul Getty I, becomes entirely toxic. Need and Source for Re-invigoration is never writ so loud as when his grandson, John Paull III, stumbles and skids over his beat-up sneaker laces into the funeral ceremony in Sutton Place, his grandfather’s court. Yet even as he dances, muddied and sodden, he heads for the table, and picks the fruit, hapless and hungrily stuffing the grape in his mouth, in Danny Boyle’s cruelly accurate allegory where entrance into the opulence of the Getty Dynasty head-quarters means the beginning of the Fall of “Little Paul”, a cruel second sacrifice in place of the uncle whom his relatives mourn.

It is this fall, regardless of the kidnap, which is the series’ central focus. The grim inevitability of the ‘golden hippie’s’ fate, not truly at the hands of the Italian Mafia, but at the hands of his own name, family and his own role as the vibrant youth and unwilling fuel in a dynasty politic. Throughout the series, the dynasty members curse their own entrapment within it, in the same breath craving more of the blood line of money on which they have become reliant. Primarily this is seen in their last name ‘ Getty’,  but perhaps it is shown with greater emotional emphasis in the forenames; John Paul I, John Paul II and John Paul III. Each named after the dynasty’s founder, their identity and their lives are the tenants of the first. Though each is more different from him in their individual characters, the space for escape is limited, if the desire for it is great. John Paul III, written by Boyle at least as most wholeheartedly desiring distance from the Getty hierarchies, can only express this is volatile utterings on rooftop precipice - as his father can only do so on relapsing drinking benders in London clubs. John Paul III is kidnapped before he enters our screens, held hostage within his own name and the kingdom created around it. The BBC’s creation of multiple generations sharing a screen compounds their enforced co-dependence, allowing for a singular mapping of traits and trajectories onto individual members almost before they are born, and creating a dark pathway for the enigmatic youngest member.

John Paul Getty III, 1974.

John Paul Getty III, 1974.

 The founder’s explanation to the child protégé ( John Paul III is 16) of how the Getty business model works; all money returning to the business, officially ensuring it runs at a multi-million making ”loss” creates a reflection of the cycle of emotional deficit in the golden House of Getty’s themselves, John Paul’s III expression of wonder a misplaced light against the isolated oil fields which his families harvest.

In the Midas myth, having been granted the ability to turn all he touches to gold instantly, Midas runs to embrace his daughter, subsequently silencing her into a golden statue from which her humane quality cannot be retrieved, leaving Midas in a glittering mourning is writ large over Boyle’s Trust saga. John Paul I extreme success is balanced only by his familial failures, creating endless toxic circles in his family life.

Sandro Botticelli’s final mythological painting, ‘The Calumny of Apelles’ illuminates many elements of the Getty’s story. Midas is here featured again, though he is jaded, deaf and ignorant. Enthroned, he is surround by the figures of Ignorance and Suspicion whispering slanderous ‘calumnies’ into his ear, the group echoing the politics of Boyle’s Sutton Place. Anger and Shame are depicted in contrite Apelles, the young praying figure, like John Paull III, wrongly accused. Though at first appearing muses of justice, the classically beautifully figures are figureheads of corruption. Apelles is dragged by Calumny (Slander), whose flowing hair is decorated by ribbons of Fraud and Deceit. Between the dragging women and the King stands the scrubby figure of Rancour, obstructing Midas’s judgement further. The nude to the left, represents an impassioned, though utterly isolated Truth, appealing skywards, while hunched Punishment only briefly acknowledges her presence.

Sandro Botticelli, The Calumny of Apelles, c. 1496.

Sandro Botticelli, The Calumny of Apelles, c. 1496.

 This rough justice is overseen by the inset statues, much as Boyle’s ‘Trust’ saga feels part directed by the silent statue in Rome, motivating the characters when they seem in danger of silence.

Whether Botticelli’s Midas, Boyle’s Getty’s or the Getty’s as they lived, family dynasties seem uniquely and resolutely blind to their role in both their own conservation and support. Each generation bears a weight born of unique success, yet it is a weight which no longer knows how to handle its heft with care - consuming the identities of its new born members into mechanisms which have long since ceased to produce a creative outcome. Though the Getty’s financial wealth represent an unknowable existence, the psychological and familial trajectories they stumble through do not, the series warning of the dangerous impact of a Dynasty’s role on the individual lives within it.