Right sock? Or left? Enshrined in a stylish case at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the man's knee-high sock looks pretty ordinary, but it has a very high-class pedigree and price to match. If it's the right sock, it sold for $3,047 at a Sotheby's auction in Amsterdam last year. But if it's the left sock? Well, that one fetched $3,324 at the same sale.

"I have no idea which it is," laughed David Little, the museum's photography curator. He had a case specially built to display the sock, which is on loan from a New York gallery. The sock comes with a little diagram showing how it is to be displayed, just so with a studiously wrinkled fold at the ankle. It once clad a leg of Arno Verkade, a Paul Newman look-alike and Sotheby's auctioneer who literally sold the clothes off his back -- and legs -- in a charity auction that became the subject of a very droll video called "Strip the Auctioneer."

Installed at the entrance to "Embarrassment of Riches," a show of contemporary images of wealth and power, the pricey sock is a bizarre emblem of the financial follies of recent years. With its international reach, conspicuous displays and stratospheric prices for ephemeral trinkets, the art world exemplifies decadence, a fact not lost on Little.

"As a critique of the art world, the sock is so classic because it's also about the emperor having no clothes," he said.

"Embarrassment" features just 21 photos and two videos, including "Strip the Auctioneer." The 16 artists are a galaxy of American, Canadian and European stars including one Cuban, Abelardo Morrel, whose subject is literally money: large photos of lustrous gold bars and bundles of colorful Swiss francs. Other images range from portraits of plutocrats in gilded salons to sweeping views of the Kuwait stock exchange, power brokers lunching at Davos, Los Angeles teens in a hot tub, a Chanel fitting room, Shanghai automobile sales girls, and a billboard-sized image of a Hamburg club. Most are unusually large, making the show seem ample despite its small size.

"The idea for this show started with an Annie Leibovitz photo of [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev in the back of a limo with a Louis Vuitton bag next to him and the Berlin Wall in the background," said Little. The photo was part of a 2007 ad campaign about Vuitton's history and traditions, but it shocked Little to see the Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped end the Cold War hawking luggage, however reluctantly. (Gorbachev looks decidedly uncomfortable and is clutching a door handle as if he might bolt any second.)

"That image for me was mind-boggling," said Little. "We have this new form of capitalism happening across the world. How are photographers dealing with this? What kind of pictures are they taking of globalism? I didn't want to go with Sebastião Salgado's pictures of gold miners struggling in ore pits, because they've become clichés in a way. I wanted to find photographers who are dealing with wealth and prosperity in a different way. How do riches change culture, and what does it look like?"

Inviting questions and debate

Photojournalists such as Brazilian-born Salgado have long critiqued the excesses of capitalism by documenting the exploitation of workers and the neglect of the poor. Meanwhile, the lifestyles of the rich and famous have been celebrated in magazines, films and videos that are steeped in voyeurism and tinged with envy.

The photographers in "Embarrassment" take a different tack. Neither overtly critical nor celebratory, they question the trappings of wealth, producing images that are sometimes ironic, often skeptical and occasionally melancholy. All of the images are open to interpretation and invite close reading and debate as to what, exactly, is going on.

Take, for instance, Tina Barney's image "The Daughters," which presents a fortysomething couple and three daughters in a Parisian salon. In the foreground a thin blonde matron primps the youngest child, whose pink frock echoes hers and that of the vivacious middle child. In the background stand the husband and an ever-so-slightly plumpish older girl whose slumped posture and unmatched dress invite over-interpretation: His child vs. hers or theirs? Unhappily blended family in posh digs? Is Mom's back-to-Dad an accident or disdainful? Might it even hint at an affair he hasn't yet twigged to?

Some of the images are wickedly funny. British photographer Martin Parr managed a delicious send-up of crusty horse-racing fans wearing stuffy coats and bowler hats pulled down like berets. His picture of a lounge at the Cartier International Polo Challenge in Dubai is quite mystifying. Whose bambino is in the high-end pink baby carriage? What's a guy in traditional white robes doing there? And who is the buxom bimbo in capri pants and shades?

In Sze Tsung Leong's elegiac image of Shanghai's "Suzhou Creek, Pututo District," a melancholy pall hangs over the old Chinese buildings in the foreground that will inevitably be replaced by the new skyscrapers looming amid construction cranes in the smoggy background. Dutch photographer Jacqueline Hassink captures something of Shanghai's retro sexism in her images of young models in evening gowns caressing exotic cars at an international auto show.

At nearly 17 feet long and over 7 feet tall, German photographer Andreas Gursky's "Cocoon" is a startling image of a bizarre Hamburg nightclub whose walls curve above the revelers like a golden honeycomb. Gursky has Photoshopped hundreds of buff and beautiful people, mostly guys, onto the dance floor, where they pose and preen in a tableau of decadent sophistication.

"This show is not about how awful all this wealth is," said Little about the Gursky photo. "It's also about youth and fashion and the pleasure people find in leisure."

A portrait of power

Power is also pictured in the show's most enigmatic image, "A Lunch at the Belvedere" by French artist Luc Delahaye. Taken in 2004 at the Swiss resort of Davos, it records a private lunch given by Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan, for nine of the world's most influential financiers. The actual table was a circle, Little said, but Delahaye manipulated the portraits so the men appear to be seated on one side with George Soros at the middle, holding Jesus' position in Da Vinci's "Last Supper," which the photo slyly apes. All are in black suits and ties except Soros, who wears an open shirt and sport coat.

While Musharraf holds a title and commands an army, Soros is clearly the most powerful man in the room, so powerful he needn't dress for success or even pontificate. He merely fiddles with a fork and listens. Riches without embarrassment.

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431