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.



“Hollywood Chinese” entices us to go beyond Chop Socky

When you think of the Chinese, a few images probably pop to mind: the food, Kung Fu, China Town.  Exotic.  Far East.  “Oriental.”  Most Americans are familiar with these.  But these do not necessarily have much to do with being Chinese or Chinese-American.  And what about the Chinese in movies?  PBS presents a film, Hollywood Chinese as a part of its American Masters series.  While it premiered last May, I imagine that it pinged off of very few people’s radars.

The film shows us just how much we’ve been missing in the mainstream films and majority culture.  Hollywood Chinese provides a view of the culture well beyond the martial arts, Tong gang wars, opium trade, or passive, pliant women.

This fascinating documentary introduces us to, or reminds us of, elementary myths and stereotypes about the Chinese.  The director, Arthur Dong, accomplishes this by introducing the milestone films.

He shows clips and actors’ reflections on “The World of Suzie Wong,” the “yellow face” casting in the Charlie Chan series, and in “The Good Earth,” and contemporary concerns with the adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.”  In citing these titles, he demonstrates where Chinese films either went off the course of reality or authenticity or were course corrected.

As an example of the Web’s limits, I haven’t yet found the documentary at YouTube, nor even at  While I found neither an excerpt nor a full video, there is a Q & A with a renowned actor Nancy Kwan.  Her career broke open with “The World of Suzie Wong.”

“Hollywood Chinese” brings us face-to-face with various Chinese and Anglo actors’ and scholars’ opinions about these films and the films that marked or meant a lot, either positive or negative, to the Chinese, or America at-large, if not both.

The novel's cover

Among the fascinating details from this documentary is the saga of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American to make an American film about her community, The Curse of Quon Gwon, in 1916.  Time Magazine has a slide show about her work and her legacy.

“Hollywood Chinese” engaged me as much as yet another documentary, “Chop Socky,” but that’s a whole nother topic.  While I found no link to the full documentary, American Masters does provide edifying outtakes.


“The Colour of Beauty’s” Renee Thompson is a relentless beauty out to “kill Fashion Week”

This 17-minute documentary, “The Colour of Beauty,” produced by, Elizabeth St. Philip, and released by the National Film Board of Canada, tells the story of a 24-year-old model, Renee Thompson, who’s a 10-year veteran, globetrotting professional.  This as she strives to “make it” before “aging out,” she has moved to New York City.

Model Renee Thompson, striving to break through, and in

But, as the title may imply, hers isn’t a frolicking story of the “glamour” of a professional pretty body and face.  Instead, it’s a candid and somewhat in-depth examination of what the United States’ majority sees as the opposite of our standard of beauty – The money-losers of the glamour and beauty industry.  Generally, those who have African, or obviously “other,” features.

There are “‘No black girls allowed’ on a lot of the break downs for castings.” Thompson said.

“Colour” stands out for its candor, for including sources of many different shades, and for its high technical quality.  Ms. Thompson is a compelling character with a compelling story.  Even the briefness provides a nice sense of a story, a narrative arc, and a well-developed personality and set of values.  She’s relentless, committed, ambitious, and utterly charming.  And she “has a little bit left in me” to compete in this brutal world.   Of course, if your worldview or comfort level with this topic is superficial or timid, you won’t stay “tuned.”

Jeanne Beker, host of Canada's "Fashion Television"

“There still seems to be this crazy kind of a racism – I hate to say that –­ but a kind of consciousness in the fashion world..,” Jeanne Beker, Host Fashion Television.  She called it tokenism.

For some that candor, that comfort level, may make or break their experience with this film: If Ms. Thompson’s story, and her peers’ professional plights, isn’t news, that “Colour” will be a stern and stark wake-up moment.

This is a world where, despite urges for a post-“racial” landscape, “White girl” features rule.  They want white features, “dipped in chocolate.  They really look like white girls who’re painted black – That’s beauty – to the industry,” said Justin Peery, Ms. Thompson’s New York agent.

CBC news showed “Black model’s struggle highlighted in film.”

As excellent and exceptional as the film is, there are problems: The duration of 17-minutes is awkward.  It won’t be marketed or promoted in a conventional way.  That may just be Ms. St. Philip’s intention.  Too few people will know about or watch this.

  • She could have filled out a full 30-minutes by either including another brown or black model, even a man, to juxtapose two different careers, attitudes, and results.
  • Or why she’s only now doing the last sprint toward “top” status.
  • Or by including more indelible and evocative details on Ms. Thompsons’ career.

More Renee

Another speed bump is the focus solely on Renee Thompson’s experience: In some way, I think that Ms. St. Philip took the easy way out; even though brown and black bodies and faces scare or intimidate people, the men do so the most.  Yet, she omitted a man’s story.  There are far fewer of them, so that would have been an excellent way to fill out 30-minutes and have a film that is superior and also at a more marketable duration.  It’s bizarre.  The film and Ms. St. Philip leave questions that dangle.

Still, the “Colour” works: In the end “Colour of Beauty” shows how ugly the search for beauty can be, especially when those who choose don’t see an obvious beauty staring right back.


“The Secret in their Eyes” where justice is lost, and love sought

For a change, I have seen a film that compelled me to write in praise.  “The Secret in their Eyes” is a rare film that met and then exceeded my expectations.  Smart stories that are well-developed and boast strong, well-developed characters interest me the most.  I am convinced that, when a story shows that a filmmaker clearly has meager, if any, passion for the film he or she has made, why should I or anyone else pay attention to it?

An unnerving scene that flaunts injustice...without dialogue.

“Secret” provides an Argentinean retired court investigator, Benjamin Esposito, portrayed by Ricardo Darín, decides to write a novel about a case that, while resolved long ago, has weighed on him for many, many years.  He does this, in part, to exorcise the toxicity from it and absolve himself of whatever culpability he had felt he had.

When I read a compelling description by a Minneapolis “Star Tribune” film critic, Colin Covert, Argentine Oscar winner masterfully merges drama, romance, crime and suspense” piqued my curiosity.  Another one, from “The New York Times,” struck me as the most potent though: is it “both a detective story and a tale of unrequited love.”  The last time I saw a film that combined those to narratives – and well – illudes me.

Perhaps it’s “strange” or just rare to yearn for highly-intelligent and complex in our society; oh well.

The director, Juan José Campanella, is the kind of filmmaker where you tell yourself to look for his other works to be sure that you haven’t missed a gem.  But much of his latest work has been confined to the small screen, TV; he has directed many episodes of some very popular and potent shows: “House, MD” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

In 2004, he made “Luna de Avellaneda,” which translates as “Moon of Avellaneda.”  IMDB describes like this:  “The story of a social and sports club in a Buenos Aires neighborhood and of those who try to save it from being closed.”

What else can he do in cinéma?

The extraordinary way he makes alternatingly unnerving and beguiling plots, about a gruesome muder and a barely uttered romance, respectively, conspire seemlessly is an achievement.  Mr. Campanella’s talent stands out for knowing how to build a story that shows a plot of perverted justice, while interlacing it with one about two established professionals who dance around the osified realities of an irreconcilable love.  This is special, maybe unique.  The way that it was executed could have collapsed or imploded in a less talented film artist’s grip.

The latticework organization of the narrative is intricate, but comprehensible – compelling.  We quickly find strong, solid reasons to care for or take specific character’s sides.  That the object of his desire is his boss, Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings, played by Soledad Villamil, makes the story even better, more dangerous.

Converging tensions of unrequited love and unresolved justice

Still there are problems: at the beginning of the last act, which, for me was not obvious, the film began to feel long.  Secondly, after having witnessed evocative camera work in the story’s opening, I wish that would have continued, and consistently, throughout.  Third, I could have gone without the bravura shot in the stadium, which has already been debated in other reviews.  It distracted me, while doing too little to propel the story.  (Also I admit that, as some critics have probably written, maybe a superior film would leave me to find troubling flaws in at least the main characters.)

This is a tale that, from one moment to the next, makes you wince, laugh, or drop your jaw at its twists; this, sometimes, in the span of mere minutes.  What deserves praise is that it works!

Without betraying a spoiler, “you told me it was for ‘life'” is the line that sticks with me.


Why should women wait to help command submarines?

The man in charge of the U.S. Navy’s submarine group 10, has said that female officers are going to serve on submarines.  Some submariners are cool about it.  Others feel cold toward it.  It’s great for those women who want to serve on a sub.  But some fundamental questions are being ignored.

Is it more important to ask why the U.S. Navy is doing it?   Or to ask why politics and our society’s hesitance have allowed the service to wait until only the last several years to finally consider this?   Only several years ago, women were placed in combat positions.

The U.S. Navy published a frank story in October’s “Navy Times,” mentioning that, among other details, this is deliberate; the Department of the Navy has been discussing this for several years.

There was a pithy scene in the 1997 film “G.I. Jane,” where a female and senior senator asks Demi Moore’s character, Jordan, how she felt about being denied submariner service.  (I could not find the clip from that film)

“Did it piss you off?,” the senator said.

“Yes, ma’am.  It did.” Jordan said.

“Good.  I like pissed off,” the senator.

The movie broached the consequences of a women undergoing SEAL training; probably the penultimate alpha male cadre.  The military services have a very public and shaky history of treating women with abject distain.

Tailhook, which happened in 1991.

There’s another compelling and telling scene from the 1990 HBO film, “The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson,” (who had his own unnerving bout with the U.S. Army in Texas), where he admonishes his lover for her desire to serve in uniform – “Do you know how shabbily the Army treats women!?!”

But she stands her ground.  Which is what anyone must do to move past or beyond a naysayer or an obstacle.  But so much more so for women.

After you’ve been around a while, you notice that North America’s laws and behaviors are about a generation behind.  Life moves far too fast for our laws to keep pace.

The argument for separation, segregation, or denial of women’s service, as with anyone from our society’s margins, is that including them will threaten the good order and military discipline.

On NBC’s “The West Wing,” Joint Chiefs Chairman, Adm. Fitzwallace, provides a mature, concise, and no-nonsense retort to that rhetoric in the final minute.  The context is about “Don’t Ask.  Don’t Tell,” but the principle works well beyond that.

No matter your background or color, if you’re different, you are often told to wait until someone else feels more comfortable around you.  You have to decide: do you wait, or do you make your own way?


Bans on the niqab (veil). Attack on Muslim women, Islam?

The hijab seems to freak people out.  More awkward, still, is the burqa or niqab, which hide all but a woman’s eyes.  The image creeps me out.

While the eyes are the windows to people’s souls, their humanity, I get the absolutely opposite feeling when they are all that I can see of someone’s face.

I’m of two clashing minds.  While I feel that way, I try to be cool and accept the women’s personal and faith choice.

It’s not about me.

There is a popular and very poorly informed (extremely conservative) idea that Muslim women are compelled to submit or subjugate themselves to men or to the Quran.

More and more European and North American governments are banning the veil; it makes me shift in my seat as look around for state enforcers who lay in wait.  The French are making good on their discomfort in regards to the niqab or veil.

So many people just ignore that it’s the women’s personal choice.

Here is a woman’s incisive perspective about niqab wearers being a minority among Muslims, among other points.  She raises are broader and more disturbing questions.

Whether you’re of the United States or Europe, it’s too easy to see and accept either societies’ extreme, combined assumptions: that Muslim women are forced to cover themselves.  Maybe those people who do this are simply very ignorant and frightened.  For some reason, the majority media are simply going with that angle in their news stories.  This is a problem since very few people seek their news from either public radio or public TV.  That’s morose.

The idea of submission to or compliance with a Muslim higher power sits largely on our society’s margins.  No matter how religious or spiritual either the United States or Europe are, that simple, and yet humbling, and challenging choice seems foreign – unAmerican.

Now the Canadian and European governments think that banning the birqa or the niqab will serve and lift these women.  Why do these societies, or their respective governments, think that banning these women from making this choice is good?  Isn’t that presumptuous, egotistical, or arrogant, if not all three?  I find that it reflects the worst, most backward of Western thinking.

The niqab.  An obligation?

Feeling uneasy around veiled women isn’t terrible.  It’s disappointing, but not a character flaw.  It depends on your open mind; how curious you are about those people who seem to be nothing like you.  But exploiting the law to tread on someone’s, seemingly bizarre, choice for modesty is a problem.   While somewhat typical (if you look at which out-dated laws are still on the books), makes that kind of ignorance palatable.

Ultimately, as with what used to be called “the negro problem,” this is an issue of provincial minds needing to open up to the fresher air that disparate cultures and beliefs can provide.  So, some of us feel uncomfortable, even physically so, around these veils that hide all but the eyes?

This is also about the women’s freedom to choose how to submit to their god, Allah.  It is morose – truly unconscionable – to use the mere and meager criteria of our comfort zone to dictate the boundaries of women’s human rights.

I think this means that we need to grow up some more.  Even if, in so many other ways, we think we are urbane, educated, or refined, if not all three.