Born Rich is one of those rare films that the average sociologist could never make. It is usually incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to study the super-rich, as there are so many physical and social barriers between an inquirer and the wealthy. Thus, insiders are the best people to describe their own social worlds; Born Rich is such an attempt, by Jamie Johnson who is an heir to the Johnson & Johnson, Co. fortune. He turns his video camera on his friends and family (in particular, his dad). He finds his subjects highly reluctant to discuss their lives, and especially their wealth, on camera. For the wealthy, discussion of one’s inheritance seems to border upon the taboo—perhaps for humility or self-defense, or our of embarrassment or guilt.
His peers include heirs to a wide-variety of modern capitalist dynasties (with at least two examples of very “old money” thrown in, too), including major supermarket, gambling, real estate, and mass media interests. One interviewee rattles-off a long list of all the magazines—heavy on fashion and lifestyle—owned by his family’s company. Then, one “old money” friend who is a Vanderbilt-Whitney family heir describes being taken to New York City’s Grand Central Station and being told, melodramatically, that “this is yours”. This same person makes casual conversation with Johnson, talking about how his own family were “crooks” who swindled the city and then jokes that Johnson’s family also likely has ghosts in its closet, too. Johnson’s dad, who was prohibited by his own family from working for Johnson & Johnson as a youth, does not work (for money), but spends most of his time painting. He’s an incredibly awkward man who repeatedly expresses his anxiety over his son’s interest in his own wealth—and particularly his son’s interest in documenting his wealth on camera. He seems utterly unable to deal with the nature of his own inheritance or family legacy. (Incidentally, Johnson’s second film, The One Percent, explores his dad’s reticence more and generates some interesting answers to questions about this that he raises in Born Rich). An interviewee—who is a European baron—offers a very frank and honest reflection where he describes where his family’s wealth and title came from: hundreds of years ago someone probably knocked someone else over the head and was made king. It was that simple.
What stands out in the film is the truly surprising distance from reality and “common people” that most interviewees possess. Many project a mixture of indifference, vanity, or self-congratulatory bemusement with their privilege, especially in relation to those who lack some privilege. In fact, many express concerns about the problems with possessing wealth—in many occasions, these seem like deliberate attempts to garner sympathy—although it always seems a bit absurd. For example, Ivanka Trump—daughter of NYC real estate mogul and megalomaniac Donald Trump—tells a story of her father pointing to a homeless guy on the street and bemoaning having millions of dollars less than him, since Trump was in debt at the time. Ivanka’s idolizing of her father’s “bravery” in this admission is incredible, given that Donald had no problem making his millions back again due to his social networks and cultural capital—something that the homeless man could have never hoped to possess. Yet, she passes his successful return to glory as simply to product of his hard work, not the multitudes of privilege, assets, and connections he continued to possess (in fact, inherited himself from his own real estate investor family).
Others say things that display their contempt for “lesser people”, particularly Cody Franchetti, Luke Weil, and Carlo von Zeitschel. Incidentally, these men also appear to be misogynists, as they say incredibly insulting things about women, especially around the topic of prenuptial agreements when they marry. (I have shown the film twice in classes, and the moment that gets the strongest reaction from students is when Weil references a hypothetical future fiancée who might only want him for his money, describing them as a “bitch” and “gold-digger”.) A female interviewee describes the scandal that would ensue by bringing a Black person (especially Black man) to a country club… she then points out a Black man playing tennis and insists he must be a tennis pro, teaching a club member.
Some express fears of losing their wealth—either getting “cut-off” or left out of their inheritances, due to some kind of minor fax-paus. Consequently, they try to “walk the line” and avoid ostracization, at least to those who control the purse strings. So strong is this desire to control one’s appearance and not risk public humiliation and possible divestment, that Weil actually sues Johnson to exclude his interviews from the film. This seems to be a perfectly sensible action on Weil’s part, considering all the unflattering comments he has already made to Johnson in interviews.
Two male interviewees (who are, generally, the least masculine of the bunch) seem reflexive about their wealth and talk about the emotional problems it has caused. One relates being beaten-up when younger for being rich. Consequently, they see their wealth as alienating them from others in the society, keeping them from having wider set of relationships and friendships. One of these two took time off from university studies due to depression and worked in a working-class job for awhile (his poor co-workers were amused by his high-brow knowledge).
Most, however are unable to relate to “common people” and do not even appear interested in doing so. They talk about horses, impulsively spending hundreds of dollars on hand-bags, where they “vacation”, how easy it is for them to get jobs, buying the most expensive bottles of wine to drink, and how they like to spend hours “busting [the] balls” of working-class people in their employ. Some pursue art-making exclusively for years and most never mention working-class people. In fact, the only working-class people to appear in the film are shown at the very beginning—wait-staff at Johnson’s twenty-first birthday party are being directed to be extra polite to all his guests.
Most likely Born Rich made Johnson a pariah amongst his ultra-wealth peers. If so, the need to adapt to those conditions and the storm of attention on the question of the super-rich seemed to make him even more critical in his follow-up film, The One Percent, which is more well-done, polished, and critical in certain respects. But, Born Rich has this startling, “behind-the-curtain” quality that is rarely captured. Johnson’s own reflexivity and curiosity about his (and others’) wealth makes for an interesting narrative. The film shows an important component to the story of social class in America, which is the flip-side of the coin usually discussed by sociologists (i.e., poverty). The opulence and decadence of people like those interviewed here is what creates the poverty of others. Not to be missed.
Topics: social class, social mobility, culture, cultural capital, wealth