|Directed by||Jamie Johnson|
|Music by||Joel Goodman|
Wise and Good Film, LLC
Born Rich is a 2003 documentary film (filmed primarily between 1999-2001) about the experience of growing up in wealthy families. It was created by Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. The film consists primarily of Johnson interviewing 10 other young heirs. These interviews are offset by Johnson's exploration of his own experience and family as he comes into a large inheritance on his 21st birthday. He seeks out how to be a productive person, avoiding the dysfunction that he sees affecting many of the very rich. The film explores the taboo the ultra rich have against about talking about their wealth, which Johnson believes causes the wealthy to be dysfunctional; and that the discussion of wealth calls into question their right to have their wealth.
At the age of 20, Johnson came up with the idea for the film through conversations with his uncle, Dirk Wittenborn, a novelist and screenwriter, who is also a producer of the film. Having been brought up reading Scott Fitzgerald, Johnson noted that no one of his class or background had attempted to examine issues of social class in America today. Made over a three-year period while he was a history student at NYU, the documentary started out as his graduation thesis.
It took three years to make as most of the young heirs contacted to participate in the film turned him down, sometimes harshly, due to parental objection, fear of losing their inheritance, or fear of violating social taboo. A Campbell's soup heir and a Rockefeller initially agreed to participate but both of them backed out due to a parent's objections. The pre-production took two years and involved hundreds of phone calls to line up the "young inheritors". Johnson enlisted Bingo Gubelmann, a childhood friend who is a cousin of socialite Marjorie Gubelmann, to be a co-producer and to help recruit "inheritors" in their late teens to mid-20s who could live lavishly without ever having to work. 11 heirs ended up being interviewed.
By summer of 2000, after a year of filming, most of those interviewed were asking Johnson to take them out of the movie. Johnson recalls people approaching him at parties telling him that he was a traitor to his class, that making the documentary was the "stupidest thing" he could do, it would not benefit anyone, and he would regret it and lose all his friends. When they were no longer able to get permission to film at parties, Johnson and Bingo had a "Roaring Twenties" themed joint 21st-birthday party for themselves at the East Hampton house of Johnson's parents. A sign posted at the entrance informed the guests they would be filmed for a documentary. They were worried that no one would come to the party because of their unpopularity with the rich due to the film, but four film subjects and 150 other guests attended. The movie ends at the party with Johnson's voice-over about living outside the American dream that was achieved by his great-grandfather. According to Johnson, the decadence of the party was intentional. He had always wanted to film the final scene, where he and Bingo pour Veuve Clicquot into a tower of champagne glasses, "as part of the movie about the unequal distribution of wealth in America."
The editing process took over a year, with 45 hours of footage to edit. While the film was being edited, Wittenborn wrote an article about the film that appeared in the September 2002 issue of W magazine. Gossip columns started reporting about the movie. After hearing early reports about the film, Luke Weil, one of the film's subjects, filed a lawsuit on September 4, 2002, demanding that his scenes be removed. The lawsuit was featured in the film. Weil alleged that he had been "tricked" into participating in what he thought would solely be a school project. Witternborn recalls that when he was questioned by Weil during the filming, he told Weil about his work in film and television, and that they hoped to sell the film to HBO. Other film participants also had regrets about participating and some also claimed they were told that it was a student film. Johnson denied this, saying they all signed releases. In a decision dated September 27, 2002, the New York Supreme Court dismissed Weil's lawsuit, ruling that the subject matter of the film was newsworthy, and that the releases Weil had signed in 2000 clearly identified the film as a commercial production.
The film had been submitted to the Sundance Film Festival when the court ruling was reported by the press in October 2002. Changes were made to the film after Weil became incensed after the film's debut at Sundance. Wittenborn remarked on Weil's reaction to the film, "We could have made him [Weil] look worse. We were being kind." Johnson concurred that there was "some reservation on our part in terms of editing".
Born Rich was selected for a noncompetition screening at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, where it was a hit. The film premiered at Sundance on January 19, 2003 in the American Spectrum category. Every seat at the screening was occupied and a couple dozen people were turned away. Sheila Nevins, executive vice president for original programming at HBO, decided to see the film at Sundance when she saw a line around the block for it. An edited version of the film was produced after it was acquired by HBO. In July 2003, it was promoted at the HBO presentation at the Television Critics Association convention in Los Angeles by Johnson and three film subjects.
On October 13, 2003, Johnson was on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss Born Rich in an eponymous episode that also featured Paris Hilton and Nicky Hilton. On October 15, 2003, HBO had the big screen premiere of the film in New York City and five heirs in the film attended with Johnson. There were sold-out screenings of the film in New York for weeks. On October 23, 2003, Johnson appeared with film subject S.I. Newhouse IV on Paula Zahn Now on CNN to discuss the film. On October 24, 2003, the film premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival. On October 26, 2003, Johnson was interviewed about the film on CNN Sunday Morning. On October 27, 2003, the film debuted on television as part of the America Undercover series on HBO, where it was on a regular rotation.
Born Rich was the first of several television shows about the wealthy that fall season. A number of shows on the rich had started airing or were in production. Born Rich was considered more substantive viewing. Johnson believed that the television networks were influenced by the amount of press the film received, as it went to Sundance right before the networks started to develop and market shows for next two television seasons. He also believed the fascination with wealth in popular culture at the time of the release "is deeply influenced by the administration that's running the country." In an Avenue Magazine interview about the film ten years after its release, Johnson said, "Now, reality television about wealth is a staple genre on TV, whereas there wasn't a single show about that at the time...so it had more of an impact and people weren't as guarded."
In 2013, on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes show, Born Rich was alluded to and Johnson commented on meritocracy in America on the day Prince George of Cambridge was born. The Daily Mail also had an article following up on the film participants.
The documentary was nominated for two Emmy Awards in 2004: Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming for Jamie Johnson; and Outstanding Nonfiction Special for Sheila Nevins (executive producer), Dirk Wittenborn (produced by), and Jamie Johnson (producer).
HBO Executive Vice President of Programming Sheila Nevins, Ivanka Trump, S.I. Newhouse IV, Josiah Hornblower and producer/director Jamie Johnson of the HBO Documentary 'Born Rich'
Kneeling - Cody Franchetti and S.I. Newhouse IV Back row - HBO Executive Producer Sheila Nevins, Producer Sara Bernstein, Producer Dirk Wittenborn, Director Jamie Johnson, Ivanka Trump, and Juliet Hartford; McGee, Henry (2003-10-15). "S.i. Newhouse Iv, Jamie Johnson and Ivanka Trump Arriving at the Premiere of Hbo's Born Rich at the Screening Room in New York City on October 15, 2003.". ImageCollect. Retrieved 2016-10-26.