From earliest childhood, Jamie Johnson was told not to talk about money. Specifically, he was brought up not to talk about his money - the untold millions that were his due from birth thanks to the Johnson & Johnson company founded by his great-grandfather in 1886. So when he came up with the idea of making a documentary film about the children of America's super-rich, his family, along with the social circle he frequents in and around Manhattan, were not exactly best pleased.
His father, who has never worked a day in his life, made it clear he found the whole idea unwise and a little vulgar. His family's lawyer warned him he might be committing social suicide, and was not surprised to hear that he was having trouble finding participants to talk about themselves on camera.
But Jamie Johnson persisted, and the result - an oddly compelling 60-minute portrait of his friends and contemporaries entitled Born Rich - has become a quirky sort of hit. Featuring interviews and snippets from the lives of half a dozen principal participants, it was much discussed at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and is sparking all sorts of commentary once again now that it is airing regularly on the HBO television cable station. That commentary has been by turns anguished (especially among the East Coast smart set) and gently satirical (especially among schadenfreude-prone television critics). Johnson not only broke a taboo among his peers; he also made a film that dares to point out the palpable existence of class in the supposedly classless United States of America. The "voodoo of inherited wealth", he calls it.
The trouble began as soon as the nature of his film hit the gossip column of The New York Post, and it has persisted ever since, culminating in an incident a few weeks ago in which he was cornered at a party by a bunch of drunk Ivy League bankers. They said he was an idiot and a class traitor; he did his best to ignore them. One of the film's protagonists, the betting industry scion Luke Weil, tried to sue him for defamation of character - the case was thrown straight out of court - while another, Josiah Hornblower of the Whitney/Vanderbilt dynasty, now says he regrets participating because the film has caused embarrassment and humiliation for his family.
So why did Johnson do it? Mainly, I would guess, because he felt he had to, and because the very taboo imposed on him all his life was the very thing he felt he had to break to become a sane, productive human being.
"I didn't want to inherit the fear of talking about money," he says in the film, after showing the audience two distinctly uncomfortable exchanges with his father. James Johnson the elder is depicted as a bit of a lost soul, an amateur painter and admirer of objets d'art struggling to find reasons to justify his existence. Jamie, by contrast, is determined to ask him tough questions about the rationale of inherited wealth and use the experience as a therapeutic rite of passage to his own adulthood. "There are no courses in college on how to be a hardworking and productive rich person," he says. "It's something you have to figure out for yourself."
When he was little and growing up in the New York countryside with horses and gilded carriages, nobody thought to explain to him that there was anything unusual about his station in life. The first inkling he had of his extraordinary financial good fortune came when he was 10, and a classmate of his found his father's name in the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans.
The experience was both humiliating and strangely revelatory: "I felt I was finding out a secret I wasn't supposed to know." And it might have been the early seed that planted in his head the notion that all this money, and the hushed silence around it, needed to be explored if it was to be understood.
The film opens with Jamie's 21st birthday party, a black-tie event that also marked the evening that he came into his inheritance and gained control of "more money than most people can earn or spend in a lifetime". There is a Gatsby-ish feel to the occasion, not least because of the period flapper costumes of the women, and the obvious excess of pyramids of crystal champagne coupes. Jamie himself is seen carefully donning his tails and top hat. And, as we are introduced to his friends, we quickly realise this is no ordinary group of people.
SI Newhouse IV, heir to the Condé Nast publishing empire, has trouble naming all the magazines his family controls. ("I don't have enough fingers," he explains, looking at his hands as he reels off Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Gourmet, GQ and the rest.) A textile heir called Cody Franchetti refers to idle chitchat shared with "Lauren" and "Isabella" without feeling the need to supply their last names (Hutton and Rossellini). Ivanka Trump, daughter of Donald, suggests her father has endured greater troubles than the homeless people who gather outside his buildings because he, unlike them, has gone billions of dollars into debt. Luke Weil discusses how the bar bill of an evening at an exclusive night club in the Hamptons can easily mount into thousands of dollars ("These things happen"). And Josiah Hornblower, the Whitney/Vanderbilt heir, describes the astonishment he remembers feeling, as a child, that not everybody has a family museum in Manhattan, as he does. There are also contributions from the 27-year-old model and heiress to a grocery chain Juliet Hartford, and Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of Michael, tycoon and Mayor of New York, who confides that her family name "stinks".
It is easy to look for the ridiculous in this cast of characters. Clearly, some of them fear this is exactly how they are going to be viewed. "This has been a total nightmare," one of the film's subjects told The New York Observer recently on condition of anonymity. "I look like a total moron, and that's not who I am." Certainly, finding the moron element has been a bit of a sport for the American tabloids. But Johnson himself does not seem to be aiming for caricature; his characterisations, even at their most blasé or obnoxious, ring pretty true.
The fascination of his film, for non-tabloid critics and audiences, stems rather from its rare and intimate view of a forbidden world. The effect is almost anthropological, like a David Attenborough documentary on some rare species and the idiosyncracies of its habitat. These super-rich kids, for their part, react to the camera rather like a patient with a therapist; they start out diffident, then settle down and end up saying more than they probably should. That, more than anything, makes them different from their British counterparts (and perhaps also from their own parents); our aristocrats have little familiarity with the sort of American-style confessional openness that can temper the effect of generations of studied emotional repression.
Johnson's subjects are presented as a strange form of almost involuntary club. Because their money sets them so obviously apart, and because nobody else is likely to be able to understand what makes them tick, they end up frequenting each other. More than one participant acknowledges that it makes them feel good to share thoughts about their wealth since it is so strictly forbidden to broach the subject with anyone else. Stephanie Ercklentz, an inveterate shopper who thought about training to be a doctor (except it was too arduous) and worked for a spell as an investment banker (before deciding she'd rather be drinking Bellinis with her chums than working long evening hours on Wall Street), admits in the film that she has never dated outside her social circle - Wasp-only country clubs where Jews are barely tolerated and the appearance of a black guest, or so we are told, could cost the offending member their club privileges.
The group comes across as boundlessly curious, and also somewhat naive, about the source of their families' wealth. Johnson himself, for example, sounds almost wistful as he points out that he is ineligible for the 50 per cent Johnson & Johnson employee discount. "I am just a shareholder and a customer," he says, almost ruefully. Josiah Hornblower admits that his antecedents were crooks running a "complete racket" chargingNew York for operating the subway. But then he adds, as if to make himself feel better: "Everyone was a crook back then who was making money."
An inevitable arrogance and snobbery creep in - traits that probably explain some of the second thoughts the participants have been having recently about their contributions to the film. Cody Franchetti deplores the vulgarity of a social parvenu like Bill Clinton, and says he finds feelings of guilt about his wealth "absolutely senseless". Guilt, he adds, is "something for old women and nuns". Luke Weil, meanwhile, describes the temptation he felt as a teenager to lord it over "some small-town kid from Connecticut" and tell him: "I'm from New York. I can buy your family. Piss off."
Almost all of these gilded young things seem to feel an obligation to rail against their background, but in almost all cases it is the most timid of rebellions, standing little or no chance against the crushing weight of money, lifestyle and established social mores. They are all vaguely aware it is a bad idea to devote life entirely to leisure - almost every family is littered with sorry tales of drug addiction, serial marriage and other forms of overt misery. They all feel the need to act as if the money were no big deal, but at the same time live in terror of what they would do if their fortunes were either lost or unexpectedly denied them.
Above all, they exude a certain listlessness. Johnson himself expresses it well when he suggests that he and his family "live outside the American Dream". The aspiration to make a mark on the world and build a fortune - the hunger that has driven American capitalism for more than 100 years - was long ago fulfilled by Johnson's forbears, leaving him with nothing to aim for, in the traditional sense. His father is shown pushing him towards becoming a curator of rare manuscripts, a suggestion he finds faintly ridiculous. In that context, Born Rich comes across not just as a documentary but also as a lifeline which Jamie Johnson can only hope will lead him to salvation - professional and social - as a proper film-maker.Reuse content