Jamie Johnson’s 21st birthday was a big ordeal. Not because it marked some socially-constructed transition into adulthood, or even because it meant he could now legally drink. It was a big ordeal because, when the clock struck midnight, Johnson would become a millionaire.
Heir-apparent to the Johnson & Johnson, the $71 billion pharmaceutical company established by his great-grandfather, Johnson was about to inherit more money than most people will ever make in their lives. It was a day he had obsessed over since first (accidentally) discovering that his family was rich, but now that it had arrived, Johnson wasn’t sure how to feel about it.
That was the year 2000. Three years later, Johnson released Born Rich, a documentary in which he talked with 10 other young heirs about what it’s like to discover individual value in a world that defines them only by their bank balance.
It may not seem like it, but Born Rich was a courageous endeavour. Early in the film, Johnson is warned by both his father and the family attorney that it’s a bad idea; that talking about money is uncouth, and looked down upon within their community. He doesn’t care. He’s out to challenge this norm, to banish the stigma surrounding the rich, while simultaneously asking what they can do to make an important difference in the world.
What follows feels like The Breakfast Club, if Bender, Claire, Andrew and co. were heirs to some of the biggest companies in the world. Beneath the stereotypical facades – the fencing, the horse riding, the handbag shopping – are young people struggling to develop identities.
It’s no surprise they face these struggles. In one segment, Johnson asks his father what he should do with his life. His father rambles on, talking about how he could “collect papers…documents”.
“As a job?” asks Johnson.
Johnson nods as if he understands, because he does understand. This detachment from relevancy is the curse of the rich, and one that must be dispelled in order to quell the class tension that rages as fiercely in 2017 as any time this century.
Few will empathise with them, especially when A&P heiress Juliet Hartford says she’d give $1 million to the homeless if she had it available, only to follow up with “just kidding!” and a selfish laugh. Yet we should.
“What’s it like to be wealthy? What does it feel like to have never felt any pain?” Ivanka Trump recalls a random man asking her while on a job in Australia. Her anecdote is a reminder that there is ignorance on both sides of the discussion surrounding wealth and the wealthy. If we are not willing to seek understanding, the discussion will be pointless, and the division between the one percent and the rest of civilisation will only widen.
“Why would anybody in their right mind work unless they had to?” another asks Johnson with a chuckle. He has no answer. How could he? He’s an educated, driven young man who refuses to rest on his laurels, or more specifically, his family’s laurels. That he has wealth should be irrelevant, but it’s clear in the interviews with other heirs that they’ve been bludgeoned over the head with such sentiments throughout their life to the point that they are asking themselves the same question.
In the documentary, it’s only Johnson and Trump that seem to most ready to reject this notion. That is except for Josiah Hornblower, an heir worth millions of dollars and receives an income in the high-six figures annually, but was working at a job where he earned $50,000. He loves the challenge of hard work, the feeling of earning his money, and it’s easy to imagine that even without his inheritance, in 2003, he would have still been happy working that $50,000 job.
In the end, the Johnson attorney’s prediction came true. Johnson was sued for defamation when word of Born Rich hit the media, and his friends began to distance themselves from him. In 2013, when Daily Mail tried to follow up on the subjects of the film, most didn’t reply.
Staying true to his convictions, Johnson carried on. The film played Sundance, and sold out screenings in New York and Los Angeles, was snatched up by HBO, and was nominated for two Emmys: Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming for Jamie Johnson, and Outstanding Nonfiction Special. In 2006, he followed up with The One Percent, an even more critical look at wealth disparity within America.
Though Born Rich is rather old, and doesn’t dive too deeply into some of the more pressing issues it explored, it’s important to recognise what the film accomplished. It’s not just the rich that are scared of talking about money, and until we are willing to discuss the value of wealth openly and honestly, it will only continue to set us apart.
Born Rich is available online.