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"We want to think that everyone earns what they have. I guess if it makes you feel better, keep telling yourself that."—Jamie Johnson
What does it really mean to be born into wealth? That's the question Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson decided to explore by making his own documentary. Filming himself, his father, and friends and acquaintances who had inherited staggering amounts of money, he created Born Rich as a way to explore the taboo topic of wealth. The fact that the very rich don't like to talk about their money presented a substantial stumbling block for Johnson: We see him in conference with his lawyer, who advises against the project, and later he is actually sued by one of the friends who was most active in participating. His father tells him that it's tacky to discuss money, but how can one ignore it when its presence in such enormous amounts has changed Johnson's life, and those of many of the people he films, irrevocably?
Johnson's subjects include Ivanka Trump, Donald's daughter; Josiah Hornblower, the heir to the Vanderbilt and Whitney empires; Georgianna Bloomberg, media heiress; and A&P supermarket heiress Juliet Hartford, among many others. The first surprise of the documentary is that many of them seem like normal people, at least initially. Some were shielded from their wealth, raised on a strict allowance and in ignorance of their family's financial position; Johnson himself only discovered that he came from a wealthy family when a classmate found his father written up in Forbes magazine. Others seem to have grown up with a sense of entitlement, like textile heir Cody Franchetti, who came from a line of European royalty, or to have embraced the power that wealth brings, like gaming industry heir Luke Weill (who later sued Johnson). It's intriguing to see how the presence of the camera influences the different subjects: Some, like S.I. Newhouse IV, heir to a media empire, have a bone to pick with their parents and seem to use the documentary as therapy; others, like sunny finance heiress Stephanie Ercklentz, seem to be basically well adjusted but admit that it is a bit foolish to go out to a club to spend $800 on drinks when they could party for free at their parents' homes.
Among this privileged group, the other commonality besides wealth is youth: All of the subjects, including Johnson himself, are featured when they are apparently in their early twenties and are, in many cases, casting about like Johnson himself in search of occupation and purpose. A few, however, seem to need nothing more than being privileged. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was that, out of the three heirs I found to be obnoxious and arrogant, two were European, and their elitist attitudes seem to have been shaped more by that heritage than by their wealth. Franchetti in particular, who seems to have spent a large part of his college years badgering his tailor to get his lapels correctly positioned, will make your jaw drop in disbelief. Many of the other subjects seem unpretentious and down-to-earth, which makes the violent reaction against Johnson's documentary among his wealthy peers all the more surprising. In some cases, I kid you not, we actually pity the poor little rich kids. But then we'll see them collecting handbags and antique telephones and snap out of it.
Born Rich is undeniably fascinating, but at only 67 minutes long, it feels as if it could use more development. The organization seems a bit random; the only real structure is provided by a series of sequences in which the subjects discuss their first awareness of their wealth and by the recurring instances in which Johnson films himself in conversation with his father and others as he attempts to get to the bottom of how wealth does and should affect his own life. For the most part this is a sampling of conversations and glimpses of the wealthy in their habitats, either introspective, resentful, matter-of-fact, or arrogant according to the individual. Johnson is a bit stiff as the narrator, but he is refreshingly unpretentious and engaging nonetheless; it would have been nice to see him a bit more present in his own documentary, especially when he indicates that the experience of making it changed his political views drastically. The mentions of backlash against his filmmaking activities are also intriguing and would seem to warrant more development. It also would have been nice if Johnson had been able to get some answers to his question of why the rich find their own wealth a taboo topic.
Video quality is about what one would expect from a recent but (ironically) low-budget documentary shot on video: wobbly camera, substantial grain in low light, but an overall clean and crisp, if rather flat, appearance. Audio is very clear, and music comes through with fullness and resonance, although it is not a major feature of the film.
Extras for this slender film include two documentaries and a half dozen deleted scenes. The commentaries offer a bit more inside information on the subjects and on Johnson's experience filming the documentary, but they tend to repeat each other, and they can be a bit bland, sometimes simply informing us of what's happening onscreen. The presence of Johnson's producer (and uncle) on the second track makes it the more lively of the two, since he doesn't shirk from asking the direct question, and participant Franchetti actually comes off a bit better here than he does in the documentary itself. (In the film he presents himself as such a revolting creature that it came as no surprise when he mentioned that at least one hate website has been devoted to him.) The deleted scenes run about 15 minutes and include Newhouse's tour of his and his parents' home as well as some antics by drunken party guests who mention several times that they want their remarks to be deleted from the film.
Born Rich is absorbing and entertaining, but I would recommend it for rental rather than purchase. Its content rather than its craft makes it watchable, so it probably will not demand repeat viewings. Nevertheless, those who are considering adding it to their collections should not overlook the substantial extras, particularly the commentaries, which flesh out the film with more background information. Born Rich should definitely appeal to those who are curious about how the other half lives—and that's probably all of us.
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