Being “Born Rich” and humble in a recession


Recently, “The New York Times” ran a story, “Teaching Work Values to Children of Wealth,” that asked how well middle-class and richer families train their children to deal with and appreciate money.  Really, the power of $1.

That reminded me of an excellent, incisive documentary: 2003’s “Born Rich.” It illuminates a world that very few people know: Those who have no common worries about money.

Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and dynasty, made the film.  It highlights several of his young peers’ experiences.  They, like him, are heirs to North America’s ruling and aristocratic families.  Some of these 20-something’s attitudes and humbleness might surprise you – or not.

So, let’s think about what “Born Rich” says about the extent to which young people are taught to understand how much a $1 is worth to them.  It is an ages-old ideal: knowing keenly how many hours of one’s work translate to a new car, smart phone, or “Burn Notice” DVD set.  What about the crevasse between the children of vast majority of Americans who must work in order to have food, shelter, and clothing and those from the meager minority of old money who have created or accumulated most of America’s wealth: how disparate are their attitudes about money?

“Born Rich” opens with Jamie’s unsure reflections and questions about what his world means to his peers and himself.  He just doesn’t know.  He feels awkward about his inheritance and its meaning beyond him.  That’s one of the key, if subtle messages: money does not (necessarily) make you.  You can be normal.  This sets the tone for the the documentary’s prime question: normalcy (what ever that even is).  It also makes sure that the humbler and more introspective voices, Josiah Hornblower’s and Si Newhouse’s,  seem sincere.

The full film is below:

In “Born Rich,” among the 10 people chronicled, the most vocal or candid are Si Newhouse, IV [Condé Nast Publications], Ivanka M. Trump [The Trump Organization], Josiah Hornblower [the Whitney and Vanderbilt dynasties], Georgina Bloomberg [her dad, Michael Bloomberg, runs New York City], and James “Jamie” W. Johnson [Johnson & Johnson] himself, came off as independent and the best-adjusted. Some of their peers, Stephanie Ercklentz [“finance hierace] and Luke Weil [Autotote at the time, now Scientific Games] are less so.

Many of them seem like normal young people who are striving and, at times, struggling to find and define themselves.  At their core those individuals are regular folks.  Instead, maybe it does stand out that none of them discuss career stressors.  If you’re neither brown, nor brown, nor beige, maybe it takes you a long while to notice that neither of these young people is.  There is a glaring clash between these different people’s ideas and ideals of Richness vs. Wealth.

Among the young people whom Mr. Johnson talks to, Ms. Ercklentz and Mr. Weil come off as close to “the” stereotype of wealth as anyone who makes the nasty headlines for behaving poorly while rich.  But still, neither is crude, nor dumb, even if they might satisfy part of a mass desire to find a villain in someone who was born rich.  Early in the film Weil says, “The notion of talking about ones wealth; of describing a bunch of people’s wealth ­– it’s just kinda tacky!”

As a hilarious side note Chris Rock reminds us of the two different realities of Richness and Wealth; the disparity and easy confusion.   That, “Shaquille O’Neil is rich.  The white man who signs his checks is wealthy.” Below.

While “Born Rich” is tight, smart, and well-paced and executed, maybe it could have been longer.  This might also be a criticism born of it having given just enough to make a viewer hunger for more.  More details.  More background.  Maybe more dirt, if you like that.

Notable omission: Robert L. Johnson’s children, Paige and Brett.  He is the first black billionaire.  But he was declared a billionaire in 2001, only two years before “Born Rich” was released.  And wealth trusts old money most easily.

It is vital to teach young people who just or barely yet understand what $1 or $10 or $100 can do for them, or someone for whom it’s what separates them from a meal, from shelter, or from hope.  Back to “Teaching Work Values to Children of Wealth.”   When you decide to ask yourself whether “that,” whatever it is, is truly worth the four, five or more hours of labor that you put in, your mental math probably changes.  Maybe dramatically.  That clash of ideas or of realities is one reason why watching Jamie Johnson’s documentary is edifying, or at least interesting.

Money.  Happiness.  Success

Money = Happiness = Success

Which of these is which?  Which is right for you?

Toward the film’s end, Ivanka Trump mentions that a man had approached her and asked point-blank, “‘what is it like to be wealthy: what does it feel like to never have felt any pain.'”

Jamie Johnson with Ivanka Trump to his left

Ms. Trump’s reaction was angry and frustrated, but reasonable.  “So ignorant,…people who think that, with money comes happiness,” she said.  The financial, lifestyle lessons that the “Times” piece discusses are about acquiring a level-enough head to deal with the truth that “life is difficult,” as “The Road Less Traveled” begins, no matter which money obstacle you have.

Now, yes, “Born Rich” is “old,” if that’s what seven years means.  But maybe that’s irrelevant; very few Americans pay attention to documentaries; non-fiction films seem to be cast down to public television.  It’s a fascinating, relatively candid look at real people who reside in a bizarre world.  So, if you’ve not yet seen it, then it’s new to you.  In that way, it’s a “new” release.

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One thought on “Being “Born Rich” and humble in a recession

  1. Bob says:

    The most serious and profound “kid” is Josiah Hornblower.

    Most of the other kids are dull, uninteresting people, who sound as average students, – ie : superficial, silly and not very well educated. They seem as neurotic as anyone else.

    Except one – Luke Weil – who is clearly a psychotic.

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