Champagne overflows glasses. Guests glide around wearing vintage 1920s attire — handsome men in top hats, beautiful women in flapper dresses. Laughter mixes with the sound of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” It’s Jamie Johnson’s 21st birthday party and a regular ol’ beer bash simply won’t do.
At midnight, the heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune receives the ultimate gift: inheriting more money than most people can spend in a lifetime.
Johnson examines the travails and good times that result from wealth and privilege among 10 young adults in the HBO documentary “Born Rich,” airing Monday at 10 p.m. ET.
“When people talk about money, they are nervous that that calls into question their right to have the money and the wealth that they possess,” he said.
Some of Johnson’s interview subjects are his close pals, including high school classmate S.I. Newhouse IV, heir to the Conde Nast publishing empire; Ivanka Trump, daughter of real estate developer Donald Trump; and Luke Weil, heir to the Autotote gaming empire.
“I felt very comfortable talking to him, which is good and bad because you let down your guard a little bit more than if I was talking to basically anyone else,” Trump said.
Still, it wasn’t easy convincing the rich and, in some cases, famous kids to talk about a subject that’s so gauche. Johnson was turned down by heirs to the Rockefeller and Campbell Soup fortunes. And his own father questions why Johnson wants to pry into wealthy people’s lives.
“He always told me from a very early age, don’t talk about money, deny being wealthy if people ask you,” Johnson said. “He was seriously against it and really discouraged me from doing it. It actually encouraged me and I thought this film needs to be made.”
Johnson gets his fellow rich kids to open up about what he calls the “voodoo of inherited wealth.” Having millions and billions affects everything from their dating lives (several agree a prenuptial agreement is essential) to who their friends are to what they plan to do with their lives since none of them ever has to work.
He wonders how they’d react to getting cut off from their inheritances.
“It’s something you don’t like to think about,” Weil said.
Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, admits having her last name stinks because people don’t always see the person behind the name. Josiah Hornblower, heir to the Vanderbilt and Whitney fortunes, stands outside New York’s Whitney Museum and asks, “Don’t you have a family museum?”
At least Stephanie Ercklentz, daughter of New York City socialites, tried a career as a New York investment banker. It ended, though, because the job required “too many hours.” The admitted shopaholic, who is shown espousing the virtues of designer handbags, wanted to be off by 7 p.m. to socialize with friends.
Cody Franchetti, an heir to the Milliken textile fortune in Italy, believes guilt about having money is “absolutely senseless.” Franchetti works as a model, a gig some of his family looks down on.
MISTAKES OF RICH
Some of the kids talk freely about their drinking and drug use.
Weil is downright arrogant, bragging how he taunted poorer peers by saying, “My family could buy yours.” Later, he slams the Hamptons nightlife as being “as despicable as it gets.”
Weil later turned on Johnson, suing him for defaming his character in the documentary. A judge later tossed out the lawsuit and Johnson says, “Everyone tells me getting sued for the first time is a serious rite of passage.”
Juliet Hartford, whose uncles started the A&P grocery chain, jokes about giving all her money to the homeless. (“No, I’m kidding,” she adds.)
Not all of his subjects are shameless partiers who frivolously while away their time. Hornblower left college for two years to work as a machinist in the Texas oil fields, an experience that taught him “working hard makes me feel good.”
Newhouse explains how his family warned him that if didn’t work or put his time in he wouldn’t get anything.
Johnson, now 23, spent three years working on his first film, which he produced and directed. It caught the attention of HBO executives at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
His motivation for making the film was personal. He recalled stories of family members who were young, healthy and seemingly had everything going for them, yet they lived unhappy and sometimes tragic lives.
“I really want to avoid that,” Johnson said. “I want to figure out why it happens to people.”
Johnson’s grandfather married a third time late in life to the family’s maid. Scandal ensued and Johnson remembered his intensely private father cringed at the ongoing headlines in The New York Times.
“My grandfather made some serious mistakes,” Johnson said. “He was born rich and I really didn’t want to be in the same situation that he found himself in at the end of his life.”
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