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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.

"My dad was frustrated, seeing me grow up in a privileged environment," Ben says. Worse, he felt guilty for creating it. So he did what he could. "I never had any money," Ben laughs. When he left for boarding school and college, his father made sure he stayed broke. But too soon, all that would change.

Ben was a junior at prep school, hanging out in his dorm room, when his father called. His mother, Wendy Goldhirsh, had fainted. There was blood in her stomach, and the doctors wanted to do some tests. Ben shrugged it off; parents get sick sometimes and then they get better. But stomach cancer is quick and violent. Eight months after his mother fainted, she died. "January 24," Ben says.

Fifteen months later, when he was a freshman at Brown, his father called again. "I was just. . . I wasn't ready," Ben says, rubbing his eyes.

His father had brain cancer.

Surgery worked. Chemo worked. Bernie Goldhirsh seemed to get better. But he began to tell Ben about his failed investments, and why they failed. He made his son tag along when he met with his lawyers and financial advisors. And then he started getting sick again. When he grew too ill to run Inc., he invited Ben, then 20, to take over the business. Ben remembers his answer: "How do you feel about someone inheriting a magazine about entrepreneurship?"

It was the start of a difficult conversation. Ben, his sister, Elizabeth, then a divinity student at Harvard, and their father spent hours together in the hospital, trying to decide what to do with the family's money. Ben's father considered giving it all away. "You should have the opportunity to make it on your own," he told Ben. "I was like, I respect your choice; I understand that," Ben says, laughing quietly. "I was shaking in my boots!"

Eventually, his father endowed a new philanthropic organization, the Goldhirsh Foundation. He gave $20 million from the sale of Inc. to his employees and made Ben listen to every stunned, grateful voicemail. Then he put most of his son's inheritance in a trust that would pay out in installments over the next few decades. Ben could get the cash early, but only to make investments or start companies, and then he would have to make a pitch to a board of his father's close friends and financial advisors.

The night of his father's funeral, a few weeks after Ben graduated from college, his childhood friends gathered at his father's mansion on the coast north of Boston. It was his father's only extravagance--justified, like Ben's new place in L.A., as an investment. They stayed up late in his father's study, with its bright white walls and nautical prints and wide windows overlooking the Atlantic. "We had a fun, beautiful evening," Ben recalls.

I must have looked surprised. "Have you ever been around terminal illness? A lot of the pain happens when someone is alive. It's awful for them; it's awful for you. When someone passes, there's a relief," he says. "My buddy George did his stand-up routine that night, and he killed. That's a tough crowd. I got laid, in my yard, under the stars." He pauses. "Now that's a little weird."

"The next day, I remember my buddy asked how much money I have on my bank card. I didn't know. So we checked," he says. "It was a joke."

And it begged the question: Now what?

In a little yellow house in West Hollywood, where dirty dishes stack up in the sink and signs of a barbecue linger on the front porch, a dozen kids huddle over laptops and scripts, busy at work on Ben's fledgling media empire. It's impossible to tell the interns from their bosses. Senior executives Bristol Baughan, 26, and Chris Koch, 25, screen a documentary pitch about a preschooler whose finger paintings sell for thousands of dollars. ("Yes!" Bristol says, pumping her fist, "child prodigies!") Big Al, a pink-cheeked intern in shorts and running shoes, slouches on a couch, reading about prisons. (That's Al Gore III, incidentally--that Gore.) The office dog? A puppy, of course. "Receipts, receipts!" a young woman calls out, as Daryl bounds off with a mouthful of paper.

After his father died, Ben moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the producing program at USC. He endured a few months of training for a peonship, then approached his favorite professor, a studio veteran, with an idea that had been percolating since college. He wanted to make "relevant films"--movies that ask hard questions about society and propose new ways to think about the world, without allowing sex, comedy and action to get lost in the message. And really, there was no reason to wait. "I don't know if you know this," Ben told his professor, "but I've got loot."

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