The ghost of Hunter S. Thompson is calling. This hallucinatory set of images of the American charidee scene enthral and appall in equal measure. Peterson has lent us the key to a garish, nightmarish world, where New York’s über-rich siphon off a little of their richesse, and via an elaborate theatre of gala dinners, fire and ice balls and celebrity endorsement, indulge freely in the gift of giving.
Small dogs in couture outfits wolf down delicate amuse-bouches, while their owners save the world with due pomp and ostentation. Diners at a benefit do not seem to notice that the centrepiece on their immaculately-laid table is a dead fox … and what’s more, it’s wearing a hat. Another reveller appears to be showing a gorilla the merits of a pure silk tie.
Despite the good intention that must underpin a charitable act, a quiet menace pervades these pictures. Malevolence creeps into the most innocent of scenes … and to give Peterson his due, this is no simple hatchet job. The lurid, swirling images brilliantly conjure up the sensation just prior to fainting or vomiting, and as such would not be out of place in the “horror” section of an avant-garde bookshop. A more savage edit, one feels, would have rendered the book entirely unclassifiable.
As well as the giddy pictures, there are two text sections, which provide a context for Peterson’s photographic exploration. We learn that Americans spend almost twice as much per year on charitable donations ($900) as they do on fast food ($500). That’s laudable – butt-diminishing, even – yet you can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more direct way of redistributing wealth, as Philip Weiss points out in the introduction. In 2001, Iraq pledged $93million in aid to “poor Americans”. Have you heard George W shout about that one recently? We also learn that in an overwhelmingly Christian land, Americans still possess a moving faith in the power of money, as is evident from the following quote by Lilly Tartikoff, party organiser:
“I was in billionaire heaven. Ronald Perelman, Mr Giorgio Armani and Mr Rupert Murdoch … I was thinking ‘God, you could cure cancer with these three gentleman.’”
In Acts of Charity, we sneek a look at an elite slice of American life, preserved for posterity, hilarity or just sheer vulgarity. Hunter would have approved. Pass the mint juleps.