Born Rich - Jamie Johnson
For some, to be born rich would be a blessing; maybe even a wish come true. But for some who are born rich, it can be an extreme privilege that can go completely overlooked. In Jamie Johnson's case, however, his father kept their great wealth a secret from him for quite some time. So for Jamie, to be born rich is a topic to embrace wholeheartedly without fear. Filmed over a three-year period and seen through the eyes of it's director, Born Rich spotlights ten young adults who entered the world of fortune, fame and privilege as members of America's wealthiest families. From interviewing Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka to confronting a lawsuit by terrified gaming heir, Luke Weil, the film took New York City by storm and left many aristocrats tight-lipped. As for you, an audience of all backgrounds and social standings, I leave you warned: ditch your insecurities at the rental store.
I had an opportunity to speak with first-time Director Jamie Johnson about the film. As the heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, Jamie uses his free pass to wealthy young America for memorable interviews about prenuptial agreements, career ventures and revealing the unspoken struggle to define personality in a world where only the bank account matters.
Why do you think it's impolite to talk about money?
Jamie Johnson: Well you know I don't think it is impolite to talk about money anymore. I think that people who were born rich were told at a very early age that it is unacceptable and they were told not to talk about it. So I think it just becomes a serious part of their culture and their lifestyle and it starts quite young and it sticks and has a very long and lasting impact on them for the rest of their lives.
When you interviewed Ivanka Trump she talked about the fear of being behind her father's shadow forever. Do you feel the same way?
JJ: I think she's becoming more and more independent as she gets older. She's a friend of mine and that would be my opinion outside the film. I don't know if the film reveals that or suggests that because I'm looking at it as a friend and my personal relationship with her. I do think that since she's graduated school and going to start work in the fall that she is more independent.
Why did your Dad keep your family's wealth a secret from you?
JJ: He has always been terrified of talking about money and I think it only got worse. When his father died there was a huge estate battle over his will, which would have been my grandfather. And my father was really disturbed by the controversy it caused in his family. I think he was really nervous about being in the press all the time and being referred to in gossip columns. I think it increased his sensitivity and anxiety of talking about money with other people. I personally think that my father is a big part of this, but I think its part of the whole larger culture of wealth. People don't want to have to justify their privileges; they don't want to have to justify having access to the power and resource that wealth brings. And by not talking about it they are able to hold on to their power without being questioned and I think that makes them feel more secure.
I see. Almost everyone you spoke with was incredibly nervous about talking about their wealth and families - even your father. What made you press on and do the film anyway?
JJ: Well I think it's important, you know? It's a documentary and I really feel like I was documenting a specific minority. A few individuals that were born rich and this is a serious part of their culture and lifestyle. So to be honest with you, I felt like it was unnecessary. Like the secrecy surrounding wealth and the anxiety of talking about money is absurd. If you are rich and you live well and you spend money and it is an essential part of your lifestyle then you shouldn't be ashamed of talking about it. You shouldn't be ashamed of it. And I think you should accept it and be honest and open about it.
Why did you interview the kids you did? What made you choose them?
JJ: Well they're all very articulate for whatever it's worth. And I wanted to speak to individuals who were introspective and had a self-awareness and I feel like the subjects in the film are. And I asked them personal questions and they were able to reflect on them and respond to them so that's part of it. And also they're all extremely wealthy and they have interesting family stories.
Do you ever feel guilty about your inheritance?
JJ: You know I don't really feel guilt about being rich. I think I often question why I have the wealth because it was a circumstance I was born into. And really it originally had nothing to do with my actions. You grow up in the system. It's not a conscious decision you make and since then it is a conscious decision. If you continue to live well and you keep the money you have then you are really embracing the situation.
JJ: And I do that because it offers me so many wonderful opportunities and answers my life. I've had a great education, I've gone to great schools, and I've traveled. I've really been able to live a very fulfilling life as a result of it. And that's the way I look at it.
So my thing is this: if the rich don't have to work, then why do it?
JJ: I think people who don't work don't really have interesting and meaningful lives. More than anything it hurts them. When you're born rich people just associate you with what you've been given, but the truth is every individual feels better when you create something on your own. Everyone takes pride in the work they do. Everyone likes to be active and be creative. I think if you're entirely idle you're not going to have an interesting life. Then, you do have a huge sense of entitlement and you do just embrace all the power that's been given to you that you haven't earned. Then you become arrogant and you become elitist and I don't think those are good qualities, necessarily.
Well, I definitely agree with you on that. You touch upon the party scene that socialites are accustomed to and that your circle is extremely limited. What do you think would happen if you brought a middle class friend to a party in the Hamptons?
JJ: To be honest with you…I don't think it would be an issue. I don't even know that…it depends on how large the group was. But I don't think it would cause that much of a stir.
Why do you say that?
JJ: Well, we're talking about one individual. I think that the middle class individual might feel more out of place than anything because they're on someone else's turf. They would be able to see the differences. I think also that the wealthy kids would feel pretty normal because they're in their natural setting. I think that if you reversed it and you brought a rich kid to a middle-class neighborhood party, I think they would notice a huge difference and have a hard time fitting in and feeling comfortable.
You touched upon the use of drugs throughout the documentary. Do you think drugs are a form of rebellion?
JJ: I do think drugs are a form of rebellion for a lot of people. And I don't know that that's restricted to wealthy kids. I know a lot of individuals who are in their late teens and early twenties are really trying to figure out themselves and their situation in life. They party a lot, drink a lot and do a lot of drugs. I know it's easier for wealthy people to get the drugs because they have the money to do so. But I don't think they're necessarily more prone to using drugs.
Unfortunately you had some legal battles because of this documentary involving Luke Weil. What made him sue you?
JJ: I think he was terrified. He hadn't even seen the movie and gossip columns just started to write about it and his family was telling him, 'You're an idiot. Why are you doing this?' And his friends are telling him, 'You shouldn't have done this. It was stupid of you.' And I think he panicked and freaked out and just irrationally tried to sue me. Unfortunately, for his sake he had forgot that he signed three releases while we were shooting the film. So he didn't have much of a case.
Do you guys get along now?
JJ: I've seen him around town in New York City and he since suggested we have lunch and hang out. We haven't done that.
In the outtakes, Luke refers to buying someone lunch and worrying that the only reason that person would have lunch with him is because they know he's paying. Then he goes on to say that because he's the one buying lunch, that makes the person he's eating with his "slave". Where does this mentality come from?
JJ: I think it comes from kind of what we were talking about. When you're born into a situation where everyone kisses your ass, where everyone listens to you and reveres you in a way just because you have money, you start to get accustomed to that lifestyle. And if you're not willing to examine it and say, 'Oh no its just been given to me. It's money. It's OK. I can talk about it. I can acknowledge it. It doesn't have anything to do with what I've done.' Then you start to believe that you're really superior to other people around you and you treat them that way. It's horrible.
There are other outtakes in the extras of some young socialites joking about their broken Rolexes and how passé it is to use public transportation. And as a journalist I'm supposed to be objective, but I was pretty appalled by hearing that.
But, knowing that audiences of all classes and backgrounds will be watching the film, are you afraid they will be put off quickly?
JJ: Well, I think if the film provokes a reaction it's successful. And I think that a lot of the things in the documentary are troubling to watch and hard to digest, but that's the power of the film. It forces you to confront a reality in a very direct way. And there's something undeniably real about it because it comes from my perspective and I'm a part of that world. I recognize it. I've grown up there and this is the reality of the situation.
This project was pretty ambitious of you to take on considering your upbringing and social class. Any regrets?
JJ: I don't have any regrets. I think you can always look back in hindsight and say the film could've been better and I think it could've. But as a concept of pursuing it I really don't regret it at all.
Do you think you're going to continue making documentaries or be interested in film or anything like that?
JJ: Absolutely. Currently I'm working on two other projects that I'm really excited about. They're both documentaries.
Is there anything you can tell me about the documentaries you have coming up?
JJ: I have another documentary I'm making that I can only really say continues on very similar themes regarding social class and the distribution of wealth in America.
- Danielle Henbest
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