Monday, October 27, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist

Documentary offers look into lives of those who were 'Born Rich'

Many Americans harbor two basic fantasies: a) the wealthy are secretly miserable, and b) with hard work and luck, we can be just like them.

So it's both annoying and satisfying to find HBO's "Born Rich," on at 10 tonight, suggest they aren't so different after all.

"Born Rich" is a one-hour documentary made by Jamie Johnson, a 23-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. It offers a rare look inside the world of the super-affluent through a series of interviews Johnson conducted with his peers.

Included are Georgina Bloomberg (daughter of New York's billionaire mayor); Ivanka Trump (daughter of Donald); S.I. Newhouse IV (grandson of the publishing magnate); and Josiah Vanderbilt Whitney Hornblower (names that need no explanation).

"Born Rich" is the first of several fall shows that follow the moneyed. If you want proof the current economy stinks, look no further; just as during the Great Depression, the masses presumably ache for glamorous escapism.

Tomorrow night at 10:30, MTV debuts a reality series called "Rich Girls" that chronicles the dollar-burning lives of two teenage girls in Manhattan.

And in early December, Fox will launch "The Simple Life," which gets its kicks from placing socialites Paris Hilton (hotel heiress) and Nicole Richie (daughter of singer Lionel) with a Midwestern farm family — a sort of "Green Acres" petri-dish experiment.

However, HBO's "Born Rich" shouldn't be confused with light entertainment. Filmmaker Johnson's goal is to get acquaintances and friends to reflect seriously on their situations.

Johnson sets the opening well. We see his 21st birthday party and hear his inner musings on the eve of inheriting a great deal of money.

"I live in a country that everyone wants to believe is a meritocracy," he says. "We want to think that everyone earns what they have.

"I guess if it makes you feel better, keep telling yourself that. It doesn't work for me anymore."

Johnson recounts the history of his family, which included a spectacular court wrangle after his grandfather married an upstairs maid and left her the bulk of his fortune.

One by one, we then meet his cast of subjects. The presentation is clean and linear, and at the beginning, deeply interesting for the revelations alone.

Johnson recalls discovering his family's status when a fellow fourth-grader read aloud in class Fortune's list of the 400 wealthiest families. Newhouse recounts getting beaten up — at a Quaker school, no less — when classmates decided he was a snob. Growing up, says Hornblower, "You go to a museum and it's like, yeah, that's me, that's my family." He recounts how the Vanderbilt money came from privatizing the New York City subway. "It was a complete racket. They were crooks."

Such concessions are not said in a tone of regret; these "Born Rich" have gotten past mere robber-baron guilt.

Instead, they're undertaking the more complex challenge of having all the choices in the world combined with nonspecific pressure to do something.

That is, the American men are; the two Europeans interviewed don't exhibit the stress of having to do something with their lives.

Cody Franchetti, an Italian-born heir to the Milliken textile fortune, currently is a model.

"Some of my family may think it's a step down, being a whore," he says, smiling coolly. "And it is." But his tone has no self-loathing: "I'm purposely doing it to explore that side."

Most striking about the first half of "Born Rich" is the distinction that emerges between women and men. Put bluntly, the females interviewed don't seem to have progressed much beyond the ornamental role that Edith Wharton decried in her novels.

Indeed, it's not clear how the girls spend their days. Ivanka Trump talks about putting her stamp on the real-estate skyline, but that's very much in the future. Stephanie Ercklentz, the offspring of socialites, mostly shops. Georgina Bloomberg jumps horses.

Weaving the documentary together are moments when Johnson steps back to muse on some aspect of being affluent or engages his father in tense scenes about money. These often are the film's most rewarding moments.

As "Born Rich" enters its second half, it runs into problems. The revelations are not replaced by deeper insight; the claustrophobic world of the well-heeled may itself be a barrier to perspective.

Or maybe there was more resistance to self-disclosure than even Johnson realized. At the program's end, he reveals gaming-industry heir Luke Weil filed a lawsuit to eliminate his appearances in the film.

The rich are different after all. They can sue if they don't like reality.

Reality is very much on display in MTV's "Rich Girls" tomorrow night. The result is every teenage girl's fantasy about unlimited credit cards and parental permissiveness, and for parents, a scary portrait of freedom in a void.

The eight-part series takes viewers on a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of Ally Hilfiger (daughter of fashion designer Tommy) and Jaime Gleicher (source of money undisclosed).

In episode one, Ally and Jaime go shopping for a prom dress at many prominently displayed store names. Throughout, Jaime announces her intention to lose her virginity at the prom.

She subsequently decides that to do so is too "cliché" — but whether this is face-saving cover-up or just flip talk remains to be seen. Meanwhile, there's shopping to be done.

NOTES: It's official — CBS has yanked freshman series "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." NBC also announced "Coupling" is off the schedule through November. Finally, in the department of no surprises, UPN has placed "The Mullets" on hiatus. or 206-382-8888.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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