`Born Rich' reveals privileged information
The star of HBO's documentary "Born Rich" is a brash trustafarian named Luke Weil, the heir to the Autotote gaming empire. The guy reeks of everything we want to hate about the stinking rich, as he boasts about a four-figure bar bill, or how Brown University let him get away with academic murder, or his disgust for ordinary people. "If some small-town kid came up to me," he says about his school days, "I could be like . . . `I'm from New York. . . . My family could buy your family.' " Like a bratty villain out of "The O. C.," and one that's played by uber-creep Crispin Glover, he's awful.
But "Born Rich" is more than just a hack at wildly wealthy heirs such as S. I. Newhouse IV, who says a "low estimate" of his family's fortune would be $20 billion. The film (which premieres on HBO tonight at 10) evokes more complicated feelings than just hatred, as its cast of rich kids -- including Ivanka Trump, Georgina Bloomberg, and a count-baron hybrid named Carlo von Zeitschel -- open up their souls about being well heeled. It's a stark, provocative journey through envy, pity, irony, and, alas, contempt.
Director Jamie Johnson's motive for coaxing these fellow 20-somethings to appear in "Born Rich" is personal. Heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, he is tormented by the idea that people with money refuse to talk about money. "It's like this big taboo always lurking under the surface," he says. In a few scenes, set in one of his family's cavernous estates, he makes a point of proving his theory by trying to pull his stiff father into some civilized chitchat about how neither of them has had to work a day in his life. Dad, of course, remains mum.
"Born Rich" is Johnson's revenge on the conspiracy of silence of his childhood. It's his rebel yell, and it's loud enough to have created a gossip-column tizzy in New York, as well as an unsuccessful lawsuit by Weil to stop the release. Also, it has turned Johnson into a pariah, ousted from his rarefied circles for breaking the code. And after seeing "Born Rich," you can understand the reasoning behind the taboo: The crazy rich really can't talk about the trials of being crazy rich and still evoke much sympathy.
There are a few unbearable "poor me" cries, which don't sound altogether different from the boasts. Interviewed at the polo grounds in Palm Beach, Fla., Bloomberg does not celebrate being the New York mayor's daughter. "Having the name Bloomberg doesn't help me in any way," she says, "and it really is a disadvantage and takes away from the image I'm trying to portray." Finance heiress and shopaholic Stephanie Ercklentz says she quit her investment banking job because her friends "are at downtown Cipriani, it's 10 o'clock at night, they're having Bellinis, and, like, I'm sitting here cranking out numbers that are never even going to get looked at."
The sorriest figure in the movie, besides Weil, may be Josiah Hornblower, whose background includes the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys. As he talks about taking his mother on her first subway ride or the time he worked in an oil field and realized "working hard makes me feel good," he projects a dazed fragility, as if he's uncertain about his own sanity. He doesn't appear to enjoy his privilege so much as cope with it.
His opposite is the arrogant textile heir Cody Franchetti, who comes off as the movie's voice of Dionysian pleasure. With a shrug, he distances himself from others' opinions and philosophizes on the pointlessness of guilt. "Guilt to me is idiotic," he says. "It's something that is basically for old women and nuns." It's easy to read his comments as a poke at the more sensitive Johnson, whose need to make "Born Rich" carries with it the tinge of self-loathing.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.