Santa's rich pickings

NOT LONG ago, while flying on a friend's private jet, I stumbled upon the Christmas issue of a magazine for rich people called the Robb Report. I had never heard of the Robb Report, and was surprised to see that it has been published regularly for at least 15 years. My friend's copy was a special issue, containing the "15th Annual Ultimate Gift Guide'', in which the magazine's editors collect goods and services pertinent to "the luxury lifestyle''.

The publisher's letter to readers explains that: "While other publications and manufacturers may rely on brand names as status symbols, Robb Report seeks only the very best in terms of quality, commitment and exclusivity." It soon became clear that the Robb Report is to shopping what Hustler is to fornication: not merely a celebration of an experience but an introduction to previously undreamed of varieties of it.

Of course, it contains a lot of what you'd expect in a magazine for rich people: jewels, yachts, sports cars, jets, ridiculously ornate fountain pens, and a mind-boggling assortment of overpriced wristwatches. It also offers for sale enough bad art to fill a wing of the Met, much of which falls under the heading: Expressions in Bronze. A treatise could be written on the taste of the American rich for any bronze object created in "limited editions''.

As for myself, I am unmoved when someone offers to sell me one of a "limited edition'' of 1,509 bronze portrait busts of the Canadian hockey player Gordie Howe. But clearly many people of means pay to differ.

Still, the most intriguing aspect of the Robb Report's Ultimate Gift Guide issue is all those items on display, the desire for which seldom occurs in nature. There is, for instance, an "architectural aquarium'', a neat phrase for a column filled with fish. There is a very expensive glass piano top. There are German shepherds trained to attack anyone except you and your friends.

There are live Bengal cats which curl up on your mantle and remind everyone that you can afford to own a member of an endangered species. There are "personal military vehicles'', such as "the Abbott 105mm self-propelled gun'', which no normal civilian will be able to distinguish from an Army tank.

For those who prefer not to advertise their fear of the road there is the more subtle "O'Gara armoured vehicle'', the advertisement for which explains that: "We provide executives, politicians, and families like yours with the same level of security we've provided countless world leaders for decades." Merry Christmas, honey! ("Just because you're a target doesn't mean you have to be a victim,'' as the ad says.)

From start to finish, the Robb Report's Ultimate Gift Guide issue suggests there is more than an ordinary paranoia in the very rich. This only makes sense; rich people have more to lose than others. To a really rich person, a killer German shepherd and a tank to drive to work in may not seem at all like "luxury items'', but bare necessities.

But does anyone really need a micro-recorder hidden inside a cigar, or a video camera disguised as an alarm clock? These and many other "CIA tested, CEO approved'' products designed to ferret out espionage at home or work are offered up for Christmas by a company in New York called Quark.

"They may be your employees," reads the ad, "but who do they really work for?'' (If you are the sort of person who spies on your employees, it's not a bad question.)

The point driven home by the Robb Report's Christmas issue is how hard it can be to be rich. If you happen to be one of those people susceptible to the appeal of "luxury items'', the world is not your oyster. It is a very, very dangerous place. Consider one last example, the Fleming- Mayer Hair Flap. According to the ultimate gift guide, Fleming and Mayer are a pair of plastic surgeons certified by the Beverly Hills Board. A certificate for plastic surgery in Beverly Hills may seem like a certificate for skiing in Aspen, less a credential than a condition of residency.

Nevertheless, to those lucky few who can afford it, Fleming and Mayer offer their customers a product I have never before considered. It is, I suppose, the ultimate cure for baldness.

"Quite simply," explain Fleming and Mayer, "a section of hair-bearing scalp is moved from one side of the head to the balding area." Now, a bald man of limited means will simply suffer the indignities of age. And a bald man who has enjoyed a bit of worldly success might indulge in a cream or a tonic. But only a bald man who is seriously rich will pay to have himself scalped.

Michael Lewis is the author of 'Liar's Poker' and 'The Money Culture' and a columnist for Bloomberg News. Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg

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