As he approached his 21st birthday, Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson experienced an identity crisis. On the verge of inheriting a vast fortune, he began to wonder exactly what it meant to be born rich, to be counted among life's fortunate winners even before tumbling out of the womb. Emboldened by his curiosity, Johnson set out to make a film, Born Rich, about himself and his wealthy friends and peers, in spite of stern warnings from his lawyer, his disapproving father, and a friend who ended up suing him.
In many ways, open talk about money and class is one of society's last remaining taboos, especially for the ultra-rich. By plowing into these social minefields, Johnson engendered much ill will, but he came away with a fascinating, often unflattering sociological study of the moneyed aristocracy in its awkward in-between years. Johnson's subjects share great wealth and membership in a closed subculture of extreme privilege, but they differ greatly in how they view themselves, their money, and their relationship to the world. At one end of the spectrum is nebbishy schlemiel and publishing heir S.I. Newhouse IV, whose pasty complexion and runaway neuroses prove that all the money and power in the world can't stave off the twin terrors of acne and anxiety. At the other end are a pair of almost comically foppish European dandies who lovingly show Johnson their prized possessions and consider a day spent berating their tailor as the closest they want to get to productive labor.
The filmmaker's father has his own ideas about what constitutes a meaningful existence for a man of leisure: When asked what he thinks Johnson should do after college, he says without a trace of self-consciousness that he should consider collecting historical documents as a career. Johnson's status among the moneyed elite granted him unprecedented access to its inner sanctum, but he proves a superficial neophyte filmmaker and a clumsy, earnest narrator. Yet for all his weaknesses, he possesses a trait every good documentarian shares: an insatiable curiosity about his current subject. This questioning sensibility sets him apart from his more complacent peers and proves to be his most ingratiating quality.
There's a paradox at the film's core. For most working- and middle-class people, money represents freedom: to buy, to retire, to tell off a demanding boss. Yet for the aristocracy of Born Rich, being born into great wealth seems to mean submitting to an unwritten series of restrictions on whom they can socialize with, date, or marry. Though blessed with great wealth, many of the film's self-absorbed subjects appear cursed with a distinct poverty of the spirit.