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800 Words

The Idle Rich

January 21, 2007|Dan Neil

Let me introduce you to Brandon Davis, the grandson of oil mogul Marvin Davis. Brandon is known to his friends as "Greasy Bear." I wonder if you can sue a nickname? Brandon is a friend of Paris Hilton, and it was at her side last year that Davis distinguished himself in pop culture when he--in a thick-tongued rant outside a club--called redheaded actress Lindsay Lohan "Fire Crotch," for reasons that hardly need amplifying.

Believe me, all this is going to become quite edifying real soon.

Not content with these devastations of wit, Brandon also accused Lohan of smelling like diarrhea and being "really poor." "She's worth about $7 million," said Davis, sitting in the passenger seat of Hilton's $450,000 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. "It's disgusting."

Yes, Brandon, it is. It certainly is.

This rather epic display of braying callowness comes courtesy of the paparazzi, the videographers who loiter outside Hollywood hot spots to record the comings and goings, and occasional going-commando indiscretions, of the rich and famous. In the past year or so, a confluence of technologies --ever-cheaper professional-grade video cameras, cellphone video and the near-ubiquity of high-speed Internet--has powered celebrity-obsessed sites such as tmz.com, x17online.com and YouTube.com to, as they say, the next level, if the next level is Gomorrah.

It's hard to find anyone who will say anything good about paparazzi, even the celebrities who are joined in a weird, mutually promoting symbiosis with them. The Internet-driven demand for celebrity photos and video has turned a once merely impolite business into a crush of ruthless, relentless, money-grubbing lensmen desperate to document the next falling-down-famous moment. Last year, California put into effect a law to increase penalties for "stalkerazzi," and we can see how well it's worked.

Yet, to me, the paparazzi provide a vital service.

Take a good, hard look, America. This is what generational wealth looks like. This is the bellowing, blathering, flushed face of mega inheritance, unappeasable and unaccountable. Do you favor a repeal of the estate tax, the banishment of the capital gains tax and the continuation of a system that allows Americans to park untaxed billions offshore, the easy handing off of amassed wealth from one generation to the next to the next, creating, in effect, a monied aristocracy? These spoiled children drunk-stumbling through the tabloids, they are America's House of Lords. Take a good, hard look.

In 2001, according to the latest survey from the Federal Reserve, about 33% of wealth in the U.S. was held by the richest 1%, or about 2.8 million persons, and the wealthiest 10% owned 70% of wealth. To the alarm of social economists, wealth continues to be consolidated into fewer hands. Meanwhile, corporate America is busy creating a class of stupendously rich former CEOs, among whom are former Exxon Mobil CEO Lee Raymond ($398 million) and KB Home ex-CEO Bruce Karatz ($150 million). Perhaps most egregious, in 2006 erstwhile Home Depot czar Robert Nardelli--who proved to be no more than a middling middle manager--walked away with a $210 million payout on top of at least $123 million in compensation during his six-year tenure. All other things being equal, Nardelli's great-grandchildren will live and die without ever having to put in a day's work. Great-granddaddy was a failed shopkeeper, so obviously, I deserve never to lift a finger.

According to a Boston College Social Welfare Research Institute study, $41 trillion in personal wealth in the U.S. will be bequeathed inter-generationally between 1998 and 2052.

Bill Gates made his fortune through brains and hard work, but no amount of toil, in the sense of hours on the job or sweat on the brow, could merit Gates' $50-billion fortune. As an accident of technological history, he happened to be standing under the avalanche. To his credit, Gates is endeavoring to give away much of his fortune, and limiting his children's inheritance. Likewise, last year Warren Buffett pledged $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has said vast inheritances are "unfair" to children. On the other hand, four of America's top 10 richest are heirs to Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

To witness a generation infantilized and made mad with privilege, you might want to rent Jamie Johnson's scathing "Born Rich." The new A&E network reality show "Sons of Hollywood" will follow the wacky indulgences of Hollywood rich kids Sean Stewart (son of Rod) and Randy Spelling (son of, well, you know who) as they trip lightly, and perhaps nakedly, through their consequence-free existence.

Or you may just log on to any celebrity-spotting website to see Paris, or Nicole, or Ivanka, or Stavros, or Brandon give good money a bad name. Here is what becomes of young people given inconceivable power and immunity and approbation purely on the basis of their family's money. Take a good, hard look.

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