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Born Rich

Shout Factory // Unrated // October 5, 2004
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Carl Davis | posted August 30, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Watching the documentary Born Rich you quickly realize that the insanely wealthy aren't very different from the rest of us. They are just as dysfunctional, callous, shallow, self-centered and narcissistic as the rest of us. While the documentary doesn't offer any major revelations into these privileged lives, it does provide a welcome sincerity that reality fare like The Simple Life can't even begin to achieve. While you may not come away sympathizing with the subjects of this piece, at least it's constructed well enough to prevent envy, and minus that, loathing of these people.

Born Rich, is a two-time Emmy-nominated HBO documentary from first-time filmmaker Jamie Johnson, a 23-year-old heir to the enormous Johnson & Johnson fortune. Shot over a three-year period, the success of Born Rich hinges upon Johnson's level of access to his subject matter, which is essentially himself and his peers. Everyone interviewed opens up to a degree which they might not have, had the interviewer not been one of their own. Johnson is not so much a making a film, as he is trying to engage in a form of group therapy. His family along with the families of his fellow socialites, never speak of their money, never acknowledge that they're any different from anyone else, and in turn continue to foster a level of isolation and apathy that seems to forever scar the inheritors of great wealth.

Even before premiering at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, Born Rich was generating a fair amount of buzz in the New York gossip pages. Focusing on ten twenty-something heirs, including Ivanka Trump (Real Estate Heiress), Josiah Hornblower (Vanderbilt/Whitney Heir), Cody Franchetti (Textile Heir), S.I Newhouse IV (Publishing Heir), Luke Weil (Gambling Heir), and others. Weil, who talks about his drug abuse, as well as, his ability to graduate from Brown University, without attending classes, decided that his participation in Johnson's documentary could be damaging to his reputation, and subsequently filed a lawsuit barring the film's sale and distribution. A judge dismissed Weil's lawsuit and Johnson notes in the completed documentary that many of his peers view getting sued as a veritable rite of passage.

Johnson, who also serves as the film's narrator, is amiable enough as he talks about his personal dilemma, the one that led to the creation of this documentary. On his 21st birthday, Jamie Johnson was going to be given his rather sizable inheritance, but still was unsure what to do with the money. He turns to his father for advice. His father, who also inherited his fortune, is a painter. He suggests that Jamie become a collector of historical documents or maps. The question, what would you do if you never had to work a day in your life, suddenly becomes less one of wish fulfillment, than one of dread. The lack of drive and direction seen in Jamie's father is seen again and again in interviews with the film's subjects, all revealing a common struggle to assert their individual identities.

Probably the most striking subjects in Born Rich are Josiah Hornblower and S.I. Newhouse IV. Both are honest, to a fault, and do something that Weil and Franchetti cannot, they step out of the stereotypical image of the wealthy, and show themselves as real people, warts and all. Hornblower talks about how his father always told him that he was poor to keep him normal, but then an uncle took him to Grand Central Station and said, "This is yours." Newhouse also makes an attempt at living a normal life, as you learn he prefers living on his University's campus rather than at his family's New York Penthouse because he always feels like a guest and never truly comfortable there. Some of these confessions are obviously uncomfortable, but also humanizing.

As a filmmaker, I don't know if Johnson has any more films in him, but that doesn't take away the merit of Born Rich. It is amateurish in spots, and the style is fairly standard, but the insight one gains into these sheltered lives is like none other. Rather than presenting caricatures of the rich that are so often seen on "E!" or in the tabloids, Born Rich presents them as real people, all trying to find themselves in their own way, which is no different than the rest of us. It's true that Johnson could have been even more cutting, delving into issues of race and class discrimination that are only hinted at in the film, but his goal wasn't to do an expose. Instead, Born Rich merely opens a window for us onto a world that we rarely get the privilege to see.

The DVD:

Picture: The documentary is presented in a 1.33:1 full screen aspect ratio. The documentary was shot on digital video, so the picture is sharp and clear.

Audio: This DVD features a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, which sounds fine.

Extras: The DVD includes two commentary tracks. One featuring director Johnson, who talks about more in depth about the subjects of the documentary, as well as, going into greater detail about the legal issues involving Luke Weil. A second track features Johnson again, joined by Cody Franchetti and producer, Dirk Wittenborn. Also featured are a handful of deleted scenes.

Conclusion: I missed this film when it originally aired on HBO, but it would seem that Shout! Factory have done an admirable job in putting this DVD together. The commentaries are nice additions to the original work, but I really wish that there had been a featurette or an additional segment regarding Weil and his lawsuit. Further elaborating on what was already mentioned in the completed Born Rich, but maybe Johnson didn't want to risk incurring Weil's wrath a second time. While not for everyone, I would definitely recommend this documentary to those looking for a more personal and even-handed portrayal of the rich than what is usually seen in the media.

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