Thursday is Thanksgiving and it is not uncommon for people to take time out of their busy schedules not only to overeat and watch football, but to ponder those things for which they are thankful. It was fortuitous that on Monday my seniors completed watching the documentary Born Rich by Jamie Johnson, one of the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company (think ‘Band-Aid’ not floor wax). This film concluded our look at the question of what constitutes a good or happy life.
Released in 1993, this film was made by Johnson as a way of trying to think about and get a handle on his situation as someone who is a member of the 1% club, yet has done nothing to earn his way into that select group. The film spends some time looking at the Johnson family, but is primarily concerned with interviewing ten of Johnson’s extremely wealthy friends. Included in this list are the daughter of media mogul and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg (Georgina), the great-grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II (Carlo von Zeitchel), a Vanderbilt heir (Josiah Hornblower), and, who would have guessed, Ivanka Trump.
As a follow-up to watching the film each student determined who he thought was the most and least happy of the ten. One might think that given a group of young adults who are multi-millionaires it would have been a ten-way tie, yet the film portrayed many of them as growing up with so many wealth-related difficulties that the word ‘happiness’ wasn’t really a part of their worlds. For a number of them, their primary emotion was fear – fear of upsetting their families, fear of losing their money, fear of not knowing how to react to being so wealthy.
The people that my seniors focused on as being the most happy were those who were comfortable in their own skins and yet did not seem like elitist snobs. High marks went to both Georgina Bloomberg, who left behind big city politics in favor of horse jumping and philanthropy, and Ivanka Trump, who gained real sympathy by talking about how tough it was as a ten year old to find out about her parents’ impending divorce from the cover of the New York Post.
On the other hand, Italian baron Cody Franchetti, New York socialite Stepanie Erclkelents and A & P heiress Juliet Hartford were all quite comfortable with their situations, yet their almost clueless separation from the common person, paired with their almost pathological hedonism, made them fairly contemptable to my guys.
Several of Johnson’s friends were truly wounded by their state in life and tried their best to be just regular people. S.I. Newhouse IV, heir to the Condé Nast publishing house (Vogue, GQ, The New Yorker, etc.) planned to mark out his own path by earning a Ph.D., while Josiah Hornblower found that spending time as a laborer was a better aid in helping him to find a moral compass than being with his peers in the wild night-life crowd at the ironically named Conscience Point Night Club in the Hamptons.
As a closing exercise to our look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous each of my students thought and wrote about one final question: “Would you trade places – everything: parents, siblings, bank accounts, friends, schools, etc. – with any one of these people; and why or why not?” Since their journals are private I have no way of knowing how they answered, but I’m pretty sure that I can guess the results. And I’m also guessing that some of Jamie Johnson’s friends might be willing to make that switch.