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Do the Right Thing

Hollywood's newest rich kid is financing movies, a magazine and other ventures he thinks can make a difference. Douglas McGray hangs out with Ben Goldhirsh.

July 23, 2006|Douglas McGray | Douglas McGray is a contributing writer for West and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Ben Goldhirsh is zipped into his wetsuit, at the wheel of a cluttered old Ford. He pulls into the parking lot at Topanga Beach, kills the ignition and checks the surf. "Do you know Biggie's 10 Crack Commandments?" he asks. (That's the Notorious B.I.G.) "Interestingly enough, a lot of the life lessons my dad tried to pass on to me bear a striking similarity to Biggie's 10 Crack Commandments." He laughs, a little uncomfortably. "Rule No. 1 is never let anyone know how much money you have."

I had asked about money, because Ben is getting a reputation in Hollywood as a rich guy. But something is off when you try and cast him in the role. For one thing, you don't hate him. You don't even envy him, really--though his life is enviable enough. Just a few weeks after his 26th birthday, he is financing half a dozen films at his production company, Reason Pictures; getting ready to launch a national magazine, called Good; eyeing television, book publishing and the music business; and running a private foundation that gives millions a year to charity. That, and he just moved out of a small, bland studio apartment and into an airy farmhouse with a Guernica-sized TV, a stone fireplace that could double as a climbing wall, a guest cottage and hiking trails on five rugged acres in the middle of Beverly Hills. ("My Realtor kept showing me these slick L.A. places with fountains and marble tigers spitting water onto Venuses," he says. "Finally I was like, dude, you're going to get fired. Think calloused hands and dirty fingernails.")

You don't hate him because, except for the house, it takes a real effort to remember that he's richer than everyone else you know put together. Most days, he wears a plain button-down shirt, tucked into the same non-designer jeans he had on the day before, and scuffed, brown suburban-dad shoes. "What the Rockports bring to the table is a level of honesty," he says in a deadpan that manages to be dry and goofy at the same time, "They say, 'I wear Rockports, I'm not trying to pull a fast one on you.'" The Ford truck is the same one he drove as a teenager, when he had to borrow the keys from his dad.

Then there are his friends. They are guys he met in high school or college, guys with credit card debt and ordinary last names. When a bunch of them moved to Los Angeles, and he was camped out in the tiny guest cottage so crews could gut and rebuild the main house, he bought bunks, and the guys shared his bedroom for months while they hunted for jobs and apartments.

There's something in his smile, his walk, the way he fidgets: Privilege hasn't seeped into his muscles, made him languid, aristocratic. He doesn't even act entitled around beautiful women; he gets flustered and talks too much. (Ben, earlier: "Did you hear about the meeting this morning?" Zach Frechette, a Good editor: "Yeah, I heard she was cute and Jewish, and you had problems.")

Wealth is weird. Like anything weird, it can become familiar, which is why a lot of rich people think their lives are normal. Either they earned their money and got rich too slowly to notice all the little changes--changes in them, changes in the people around them--or they were born with it and never knew another life. But once in a while, it happens: A guy isn't rich, and then he is. He gets kidnapped from one reality and left by the side of the road in another.

Ben exhales heavily. The beach is abandoned. He left work early to beat the sunset, but he's still learning to surf and hitting the waves alone seems like a good way to drown. He is thinking--costs, opportunities. "Well," he says, swinging open the car door. "At least I can get wet."

Ben's father, Bernard Goldhirsh, was an earner. He grew up in a tiny, crowded Brooklyn apartment. When he took off for MIT, it was the first time he had left the five boroughs. After he graduated, he worked as a scientist, first at Polaroid, then engineering ballistic missile guidance systems. In his free time, he started a sailing newsletter, which turned into Sail magazine and a new career. He sold the magazine in 1980 for about $10 million, and invested most of that in a new magazine, Inc., which later sold for a reported $200 million. "He was a very big brain on this little body," Ben recalls. "He was only 5 feet, 5 inches. But he looked at people like, I am going to eat you. I used to bitch about how short I was going to be, and he would say, hey, big people work for me."

There is a faded, framed magazine cover in Ben's house, a fake copy of Inc. Ben and his sister are the cover models, squirmy elementary school kids playing with fistfuls of money. It's a funny artifact, though, because Ben hardly had a Richie Rich upbringing. Bernie Goldhirsh did make fistfuls of money, but he never had much talent for spending it. He drove old cars, ate at cheap restaurants and bought his khakis from Kmart. He never consumed; he only invested. Sail had been around eight years before he took his first vacation.

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