Too Young, Too Rich? The problem of inherited wealth, seen through the camera of an heir.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Jamie Johnson, a fourth-generation heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, is sitting in a cocktail lounge in downtown Manhattan talking about one of America's great taboo subjects: family wealth. "How strange we have all this money," the 23-year-old says to me. "We have extravagant lifestyles and live really well, but we're afraid to talk about it. That doesn't make sense. That seems like a very unhealthy paradox." You can tell that Johnson has thought about this a lot. But instead of simply stewing, or squandering his money as other members of his rather notorious family have, Jamie Johnson decided to conduct an inquiry. Even more radical, he decided to pick up a movie camera.
What Johnson did was make Born Rich, a modest yet impressive semiautobiographical documentary. Born Rich is creating a splash for the simple reason that it opens a window into a world that's closed to most of us: that of the twentysomething children of the super-rich. The conceit of Born Rich is that Johnson grows up in a family in which money--a fortune of many hundreds of millions of dollars--is the overriding issue yet is verboten as a subject of conversation. Johnson, just before coming into his slice of the pie at age 21, filmed himself and his peers, including Ivanka Trump, publishing scion S.I. Newhouse IV, and Josiah Hornblower (descended from both the Whitney and Vanderbilt families), and posed what are usually unasked questions: What does the money mean to them and their families? And how does it make them different?
Johnson, it's clear, turned his camera on his friends and himself partly out of self-preservation. "I'd seen so many people who were in my situation and who managed to have everything going for them, yet still live unproductive lives, and even in some cases tragic and miserable lives," Jamie tells me. "I thought, I really don't want that to happen to me." The potentially cancerous effect of inherited wealth is a meta-issue, and while Johnson's film is in some ways voyeuristic, Born Rich also underscores that point. The film's junior-grandee protagonists are simultaneously despicable, charming, and complicated--which is to say they're like any other bunch of young people finding their way. But they're also struggling with issues that make them different--too much money, fame, and the terror of disinheritance. (News flash: After watching this film, you may be more than content with the pedestrian upbringing you're giving your kids.)
Most of us know that the pitfalls of inherited wealth don't concern just the Gateses, Buffetts, and Dells of the world. A family doesn't need billions to disincentivize the next generation; a couple of million or even less, handled poorly, will do the trick. For every Rockefeller family--the Rockefellers for the most part have done a remarkable job of acclimating their scions to their station in life--there are 20 examples of families that go to seed right after hitting the jackpot.
Why is it that kids with all of life's advantages get into trouble? Opportunity, for one thing. "I don't know if rich kids are any more messed up than ordinary kids," says Arlyn Davich, who knew Jamie Johnson when they both attended the Pingry School in Martinsville, N.J. "But they have the means, the money, and the time to indulge in bad behavior." How do their parents fit into the picture? "It's hard to generalize," says a member of Johnson's social set, "but when we were growing up, we always used to have the parties at the wealthiest kids' houses because the parents seemed the most likely not to be home. Also, if the police came, you would be less likely to be in trouble."
To Jamie Johnson, a parent's failure to discuss family finances also contributes greatly to dysfunctionality. "In my experiences, I think it's taught to you from a very early, early age: Don't talk about money because it's impolite," he says, sipping a glass of water. "People in America love to think of this as a society where everyone earns what they have, and in some ways [inherited wealth] contradicts that notion, and I think that makes people uncomfortable."
You want uncomfortable? Just watch the scenes in Born Rich in which Jamie confronts his father, James "Jimmy" Loring Johnson, about the family's fortune. Jamie: "I don't want to be nervous about money, or be nervous about who I am. And I feel like you are feeling nervous about this film--is maybe that nervousness of who you are?" Dad: "And you are in control of this film. And I am not. So there is, uh, a little source of nervousness." Later in the movie, when Jamie asks his father--who spends his days painting--what he should do with his life, the elder Johnson suggests "collecting historic documents, papers, publications ..." Johnson the younger cocks a skeptical eye to the camera.
Of course, Jamie Johnson comes from a background that is far more than simply dysfunctional and eccentric. During the longest, most expensive contested-will trial in U.S. history, which ensued after the death of Jamie's grandfather Seward Johnson in 1983, lurid tales--including murder for hire, sexual deviance, drugs, and suicide--were revealed.
The dynasty started off in fine fashion: Johnson & Johnson, a maker of surgical dressings, was founded in 1886 by brothers Robert Wood Johnson, James Wood Johnson, and Edward Mead Johnson. (The company's early scientific director was Fred B. Kilmer, father of poet Joyce Kilmer.) In 1910 company president Robert Wood Johnson died; James W. Johnson succeeded his brother and was president until 1932. Robert Wood Johnson's son Robert Wood Johnson Jr., known as the General, then took over the company and ran it for the next 30 years. The great family fortune was mostly divided between the General and his idle brother, Seward (Jamie's grandfather), who was coddled and abused by his mother and seemed to suffer from severe dyslexia. Of Seward it was once said, "He liked women, sailing, farming, and the breeding of cows, in that order."
In 1971, Seward took a third wife, his Polish cook-chambermaid, Basia Piasecka. On his deathbed 12 years later, Seward, apparently with Basia's help, redid his will, leaving his fortune to her and cutting his six children out. He died two months later, and then the litigation and very public humiliation of the Johnson family began.
It's no wonder Jamie Johnson is cautious, studied, even cagey. At one point our photographer asks him to stand near the bar for a picture, to which he says, "Now that wouldn't look very good, would it?" Not many 23-year-old downtowners would have such a concern.
Johnson and at least some his peers in Born Rich seem to recognize that the best antidote to decadence and rot is work. Josiah Hornblower, the Whitney-Vanderbilt heir, dropped out of college for a couple of years to work in the oil fields of Texas. They were "probably the best two years of my life, the most important years of my life," he said. "Really, what I learned is that working hard makes me feel good." Now he goes to work every day as a financial analyst. Luke Weil, the precocious heir to a gaming fortune who is asked what he wants to do with his life, replies somewhat poignantly, "I want to be indispensable." (In a sign of how touchy the whole subject can be, Weil unsuccessfully sued Johnson, trying to get himself cut from the film.)
And what about Jamie Johnson himself? Will he be crippled by this curse of excess capital? Maybe not. No question, Jamie's a bright, contemplative young guy who seems to be keen on pursuing a career as a documentarian. (He cites directors Ross McElwee and Michael Apted as his two of his favorites in the genre --and you can see something of both in his film.) Most important, though, he seems determined not to go through life with money as a ball and chain. He's talking about it. That's a start.