A revealing peek behind the golden curtain

Two new shows give the rest of us a look at the young and wealthy


October 26, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Money may not buy happiness, but two programs premiering this week prove that it can buy prime-time shows on television's top cable networks for the young and wealthy. And surprisingly, that makes for entertaining television and downright fascinating cultural anthropology for us less-privileged folk out here in TV Land.

Both shows are the creations of teens or twentysomethings who have inherited great wealth. HBO's Born Rich is produced and directed by Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. MTV's Rich Girls is produced by New York teen-agers Jaime Gleicher and Ally Hilfiger, daughter of fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger. Both productions focus the ubiquitous cameras of reality TV on the rich.

The result (intentional or otherwise) illustrates how television can bridge the disconnect between what we are taught about the land of equal opportunity and the harsh realities of social class. The inadvertent lesson will be continued in December when Fox has its premiere of The Simple Life, a Green-Acres-gets-real series that features Paris Hilton (the hotel heiress) and Nicole Richie (the daughter of singer Lionel Richie) moving in with a family in rural Arkansas.

Money in perspective

Born Rich (making its premiere tomorrow night at 10) uses a documentary-film approach to explore the world of the young and super-affluent. It represents the upper end of the reality TV spectrum. Like any good documentary, it quickly and clearly gets right into the business of what it is about.

The camera focuses on director Johnson, a New York University student, dressing for his 21st birthday party, which features a Roaring '20s theme. As he puts on top hat and tails, he describes (in voiceover) how he feels about the party and the rite of passage it marks.

"At midnight, I'm going to inherit more money than most people could earn or spend in a lifetime. I've been waiting for this night as long as I can remember. The thing is, now that it's here, I'm not really sure what to make of it all," he says.

Moving from a dressing room adorned by a mirror to another room filled with portraits of George Washington and other founding fathers, Johnson continues: "I live in a country that everyone wants to believe is a meritocracy. We want to think everyone earns what they have. I guess, if it makes you feel better, keep telling yourself that. It doesn't work for me any more. I mean, what did I do to earn the kind of money I'll own at midnight tonight? All I did was inherit it."

You can't address issues of privilege and class any faster or cleaner than that. What follows is a compelling and provocative exploration of what it means to inherit exceptional wealth in America today.

Johnson, now a 23-year-old history major at NYU, interviews other members of his young and privileged set, including Ivanka Trump, daughter of real estate mogul Donald Trump; S.I. Newhouse IV, grandson of publishing mogul Si Newhouse; Georgina Bloom-berg, daughter of New York's billionaire mayor; Josiah Horn-blower, scion of the Whitney and Vanderbilt families; Cody Fran-chetti, an Italian baron; and Luke Weil, heir to the Autogate gaming empire.

In most cases, not only do they speak with considerable candor about how they see themselves and their place in society, but they also allow viewers access to their worlds -- the tailors and designers who fashion the clothes they wear, the nightclubs at which they party (where a bar bill for one table can reach five figures), the private clubs at which they lunch and play tennis, the apartments and suites they own at the schools that some of them attend. And Johnson listens closely enough to hear the differences among them.

Some are arrogant, self-absorbed fools, like Franchetti, who talks about how going to a tailor and getting involved in the making of his clothes instead of buying off the rack gives his life the kind of meaning the rest of us will never know. Weil delivers an ugly and profane tirade about what he thinks of young women who would resist signing a prenuptial agreement. (Weil subsequently sued Johnson to try and get himself taken out of the film, but a judge threw out the case. John-son includes the legal wrangling in the film.)

Hornblower and Newhouse, on the other hand, have some wisdom to offer about the value of hard work and higher education -- even for the incredibly wealthy. Like Johnson, both are trying to understand their families' wealth in historic, not just personal, terms.

Two on the town

Unfortunately, there is no similar sense of history in Rich Girls (making its premiere Tuesday night at 10:30), but then what would you expect in a series on MTV produced by two teen-agers? The young producers and stars of this eight-part reality series are Gleicher, who is merely rich, and Hilfiger, who is rich and semi-famous.

"My dad invented cargo pants, you know, and everybody copied him," Hilfiger explains early on.

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