I think it was Chris Rock who said, “I’ve been poor and unhappy and I’ve been rich and unhappy… rich is better.” Ok, maybe that’s not an exact quote; I’m not one for research. But the point there is that this old axiom about not being able to buy happiness is utterly full of shit. At least that’s my opinion. I wouldn’t know from experience, since I drive a 2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse with a big dent in the side. It’s not even one of the cool, fast Eclipses either; it’s the one with a Yugo engine in it. The cheap one that total posers buy to pretend they are driving a sports car when in fact they are driving the equivalent of a Ford Festiva. In other words, I’m not wealthy, have never been wealthy, grew up in poverty and spent most of my Junior High School years getting beat up for wearing hand-me down clothes and when my parents really splurged, clothes purchased during a blue light special at K-Mart. The kids in Born Rich have never had to deal with any of that, so they invent problems for themselves as an excuse to build up much needed angst. I hate every one of them with a strange kind of super-jealousy usually reserved only for heterosexual male models, but that doesn’t mean a documentary about the problems of having lots and lots of money just handed over to you on your eighteenth birthday can’t be compelling.
Directed by twenty one year old Jamie Johnson, heir to the massive Johnson & Johnson fortune, Born Rich is a documentary designed to explore the taboo subject of immense wealth among kids born into incredibly wealthy families. According to Jamie, really rich people think it wrong to talk about their basements full of cash and proves it by interviewing his Norton Nimnal like father who declares what Jamie is doing wholly inappropriate. Instead, his father suggests that he pursue a career in collecting old maps, since he has all the money he needs and no reason to really work. Jamie’s lawyer too, councils him to prepare for the worst. He’s digging into something that the powerful won’t like, lawsuits are probably inevitable.
Jamie presses on, creating his documentary from a string of interviews with the kids of America’s high class elite. These are the kids of families that achieved the American dream in some cases hundreds of years ago. Their lives are set, they have nothing to work for, and they’ve more money than they could ever spend simply by right of birth. What’s frightening about Born Rich is the way it unearths the truth about the American class system. Maybe once a long time ago this was a land of opportunity, but Born Rich makes it seem like all the opportunities have been had, and now the world is run by a group of elite families, reluctant to allow new faces to join their ranks. They’re little different from British nobility, families of people who hand down money from one generation to the next, whose kids never date outside that circle, whose secrets never leave their seats of power.
What makes it compelling is how honest these young adults are willing to be about their riches and families in front of Jamie’s camera. More then one expresses trepidation about speaking up in this way, but for all of them it seems as if getting this off their chest is almost a type of therapy, regardless of how much trouble this may get them into with their privileged parents. The result is frank talk about excessive partying, drugs, resentment, and fear of losing their wealth. One kid goes so far as equate the thought of losing his money with the death of a parent. While they mostly come off as spoiled and sheltered, a few of them show glimmers of introspection and genuine appreciation for their station in life. They aren’t all total fools, some like Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump even appear as genuinely driven and intelligent. Others, particularly the European kids display exactly the sort of self-absorbed, shallow, condescending snobbery we’d expect. Cody Franchetti for instance makes a big deal about spending his days at the tailor, where he tortures the employees just for fun.
I like what Johnson is trying to do here, but if he falls short it’s only because he never takes his film far enough. It’s really nothing more than a series of interviews, interspersed with narrative commentary and personal experience from Johnson himself. To really push it farther, I’d have liked to see him actually take his camera into the rich kids’ world. Let us see the parties, let us see the country clubs, let us see the world of discrimination and leisure that these kids are talking about. Instead, Johnson basically just provides a forum for his wealthy friends to publicly vent about all the things that bug them about their parents or to ply for sympathy from their less fortunate audience. While his goal is commendable, and while what he shares with us is intriguing, if he really wanted to make a serious documentary he should have dug deeper, he could have given us more.
I don’t really expect much in the way of an uber-disc from a Documentary DVD. After all, usually documentaries themselves are the special features. But, Born Rich does a capable job of providing a few extras, and while the look and sound of the thing is nothing spectacular, it’s about what you’d expect from a documentary.
The best feature on the disc is a series of deleted scenes, which the disc lets you watch either one at a time, or using the much beloved “play all” function. They’re basically just a series of interviews that didn’t make the cut into the film. I’m not sure why they didn’t, unless Johnson had some sort of time constraint. If you liked the film, you’ll be equally interested in these as they add a little more to the character of the kids we met in the movie.
The only other thing of note on the Born Rich disc is the commentary. Actually there are two commentaries, which if you ask me is a little weird. Both commentaries feature voice over by Jamie Johnson. One is Jamie by himself; the other is Jamie with cast member and all around spoiled Euro brat Cody. It’s weird because the movie itself is already strung together via voice-over narration from Jamie. By doing a director’s commentary by himself, he’s basically just adding another layer of narration over the narration that’s always there. In fact, he often ends up saying the same things in the commentary that he’s already saying in the film itself. It’s not that his commentary is bad, it’s just unnecessary. Even worse is the commentary with Cody, since in that Jamie mostly repeats what he said in the first commentary, which was itself already a partial repetition of what he said in the film to begin with. Cody doesn’t do much to add a new dimension to it, and even if he did, he was one of the least likable, most shallow kids from the film, and you’ve probably had enough of his uppity attitude already.
Born Rich is an interesting look into the lives of what is basically American Royalty. It’s honest, but not particularly bold or groundbreaking. Born Rich might be worth catching on TV, but there’s no real reason to go through any trouble to seek it out on DVD.