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'Born Rich'

October 27, 2003

NEW YORK -- Cody Franchetti believes it's ridiculous to feel guilty about having inherited wealth. Guilt is just an offshoot of a Puritanical culture, he claims, and should be reserved "for old women and nuns."

Easy enough to say when you're handsome, cultured and one of the heirs to the Milliken textile fortune. But even if Franchetti is completely unconflicted about living the life of a pampered aesthete -- a classically trained pianist and clothes horse, he's a more refined version of the Hilton sisters -- he's not necessarily representative of his peers. At least that's the message of "Born Rich," an HBO documentary debuting tonight, which looks at how the children of the wealthy -- the Bloombergs, Trumps, Newhouses and others -- relate to their money.

"The subject of discussing wealth calls into question people's right to have the wealth they possess," says Jamie Johnson, who directed the film and is an heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune.

"In America we're supposed to live in the land of equal opportunity, where everybody is supposed to be able to earn their fortune if they have the superior skills to do so," he adds. "That's obviously not true, and the film forces that subject to the forefront of people's consciousnesses."

Johnson is a slim, quiet-spoken and unpretentious student at New York University. He's been interested in the subject of wealth for a long time, especially because, as he puts it, a lot of people in his family "seemed to live lives that weren't that productive, and sometimes were even miserable and tragic."

So he asked 50 friends if they'd be willing to participate in a documentary about what it was like to be young and stupendously rich. But most of them turned him down: Some were told by their parents not to do it, others refused for fear of being cut out of the family will. And still others simply didn't want to violate the social taboo that says it's tacky to talk about money.

"That taboo exists across classes," says Si Newhouse IV, an heir to the Conde Nast publishing empire (the family's estimated worth: $20 billion), who recently graduated from Haverford College. "I'm always uncomfortable hearing what other people make. It's none of my business."

Johnson eventually wound up with 10 friends willing to go public, and they are a fascinating mixed bag.

There's glamorous and poised Ivanka Trump, who attends Penn's Wharton School, and wants a career as a real estate developer, just like her dad. Josiah Hornblower, an heir to the Whitney and Vanderbilt fortunes, is so conflicted about his wealth that he spent two years working in the Texas oil fields. In the film he says, "It's hard to accept [you're a millionaire] when you're a kid and haven't done anything."

Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of New York's media billionaire mayor, uses her gazillions to pursue a career as an equestrian show jumper. Stephanie Ercklentz, a daughter of Palm Beach socialites, works in finance but seems to spend much of her time shopping for Gucci handbags on tony Madison Avenue.

And there's Johnson himself, a rich kid with a social conscience, who claims in his voice-over for the film that "there are no college courses on how to be a hard-working and productive rich person. It's something you've got to figure out for yourself."

Right about now, you're probably weeping crocodile tears for all these poor Richie Riches and their money issues. Like we should all have such problems. But what makes "Born Rich" truly interesting is that it has a lot to say about matters of self-worth, especially for twentysomethings who are trying to find their niche in society. Are you who you are, or what you have? Do you fit in? These questions are universal, but complicated by the inheritance of extreme wealth.

Being a rich kid, says Trump, means "people never seeing you as a person. It's very easy to attribute any success a person has to the fact they grew up in a financially stable atmosphere, so it makes it harder to prove your worth."

There's also the occasional historic baggage.

Hornblower tells a childhood story about being taken by his uncle to New York's Grand Central Terminal, originally constructed by Commodore Vanderbilt, and being told, "This is yours." Although the Vanderbilt family does not own the building, the burden of being confronted with that legacy can still be seen in Hornblower's face. Or, as Johnson says in the voice-over, "I was always told that the American Dream is about getting a bigger and better life than your parents have. But that dream was accomplished by my great-grandfather."

That "where do I go from here?" question seems to hover over all the subjects in "Born Rich." Most of the kids in the film seem to have attended elite colleges and gone into the family business or similar occupations. A handful are obviously dilettantes using their money as a way to stave off responsibility. Yet it's the party animals who seem to get all the PR.

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