Copyright © 2003 The International Herald Tribune |

Wealth, hypocrisy and videos! Roll ’em!
Frank Rich NYT
Saturday, November 22, 2003
New York If it’s sex you’re looking for, America’s two most widely viewed porn videos of the year, starring Paris Hilton and L. Dennis Kozlowski, are nothing if not limp. Hilton’s unimaginative exhibition, still playing on an Internet site near you, is as darkly lighted as a faded stag reel from the silent era.

The hot parts of Kozlowski’s $2 million toga party in Sardinia — so risible they were edited out of the version shown to jurors at his fraud trial — include a guest ‘‘mooning’’ the camera and a life-size woman-shaped cake with sparklers protruding from her breasts. Low camp hasn’t had this high a budget since Bob Guccione made his movie of ‘‘Caligula.’’

But of course we want to see these videos anyway. Their real pull has to do with capital, not carnality. Money remains the last guilty pleasure in America. The obscenely rich engaging in conspicuous consumption or conspicuously idiotic behavior is the only excess that hasn’t lost its power to amuse, titillate and shock.

People watch Paris Hilton make a fool of herself because she’s an heir to the $300 million Hilton hotel fortune, not because her wares top the thousands of competitors in this country’s overstocked erotic supermarket. We watch Kozlowski’s bacchanal not because we want to see his parade of go-go boys in Speedos but because he has been charged with helping loot Tyco of more money than the Hiltons may possess.

It’s more fun to watch someone caught in the act of being rich than caught having sex. Could Kozlowski possibly top that $6,000 shower curtain, that $15,000 umbrella stand? His bash — a San Simeon reverie as it might have been juiced up by Siegfried and Roy — did exactly that.

Americans’ conflicted attitude about money runs deep. There is nothing more American than piling up wealth, and yet nothing more un-American than showing it off. ‘‘When you got it, flaunt it!’’ roars Max Bialystock in ‘‘The Producers.’’ But when you advertise your riches in America, you are setting yourself up as a clown.

MTV’s new reality show ‘‘Rich Girls’’ and Fox’s coming Paris Hilton series, ‘‘The Simple Life,’’ both bank on the premise that there’s a large audience that wants a bigger helping of what Kozlowski and Hilton have teased us with: the unexpurgated spectacle of the filthy rich behaving like pigs.

In keeping with the general hypocrisy about the upper class, these shows have already whipped up some moral outrage. In ‘‘Rich Girls,’’ Ally Hilfiger, daughter of Tommy, and a less attractive sidekick are shown doing ‘‘damage’’ in Prada and expressing their patronizing concern for plebeian New Yorkers, notably Prada salespeople and ‘‘garbage men.’’

In ‘‘The Simple Life,’’ which has its premiere on Dec. 2, Hilton and her own less attractive sidekick are airlifted from Beverly Hills to the Ozarks for a monthlong live-in with a farm family. The gags fly when they pluck chickens, drive a pick-up and tease locals who don’t know the term ‘‘threeway.’’

Coarse? Usually. Silly? Always. But the zeal with which all four rich girls throw themselves into their shows may be some kind of breakthrough — a step toward candor in America’s national nonconversation about wealth. They are not pretending to be what they’re not. They’ve got it, God knows, and no one’s going to stop them from flaunting it.

This guilt-free hedonism is a refreshing break from the norm in America’s post-bubble culture, where faux populism has become de rigueur among the wealthy in the public eye. America is awash in ambitious rich people, from the political arena on down, who play up their humble roots and down-home habits, however few or fictional in reality, to sell products or themselves.

This phenomenon was typified by Martha Stewart as she tried to salvage her image and business in an interview with Barbara Walters two weeks ago. The doyenne of East Hampton and, until last year, the New York Stock Exchange is now repositioning herself as a direct descendant of Ma Kettle, if not Ma Joad.

We were reminded that her maiden name is Polish and that she grew up without ‘‘a silver spoon in her mouth’’ in a ‘‘working-class town’’ (Nutley, New Jersey) where her household had six kids and one bathroom.

Soon came the tender tableau of the present-day Stewart rising at dawn to feed her chickens. Stewart seemed unaware that she was coming off as Marie Antoinette — a humorless contrast to Hilton, who on ‘‘The Simple Life’’ treats her similar encounters with livestock as a joke and knows that she’s the punch line.

When this kind of posturing comes from politicians vying for votes in an election year, it’s harder to laugh. The reigning bogus good ole boy in public life remains the blue-blood president, an heir to large and aristocratic fortunes on both the Bush and Walker sides of his family. Unlike his father, he is not about to be caught asking for ‘‘a splash more coffee.’’

On the eve of his visit to London this week, he hit a characteristically phony note when he told an interviewer, ‘‘I never dreamt when I was living in Midland, Texas, that I would be staying in Buckingham Palace.’’ George Bush, who was born in New Haven, Connecticut, lived in Midland until only the age of 15 before moving on to such hick venues as Andover, Yale and Harvard, when not vacationing in family compounds.

Rich Democrats vying to replace him are merely less effective purveyors of the same aw-shucks nonsense. John Kerry is a Boston Brahmin (mother was a Forbes) and a multi-millionaire in his own right before marrying a half-a-billionaire. Like the president, he’s a Yalie. But in his desperation to save a campaign whose poll numbers are floundering he has taken to shooting game and playing hockey with firemen in Iowa.

Howard Dean is more forthright about his Yale and Park Avenue pedigree — up to a point. On his Web site, his privileged upbringing goes unmentioned, and in the recent ‘‘Rock the Vote’’ debate on CNN he said he had gone to ‘‘a college in New Haven, Connecticut.’’ But in his own campaign manifesto, ‘‘Winning Back America,’’ he does own up to privilege before moving on to describe his youthful playground of East Hampton, Long Island, as a veritable Levittown with ‘‘people of every background living there throughout the year.’’

The sheer dishonesty of these wealthy politicians only increases my admiration for Jamie Johnson, the 24-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune whose justly praised documentary ‘‘Born Rich’’ has its final HBO showing Sunday night. Johnson did something no one had done before: He got his rich contemporaries, from families with names like Trump, Newhouse, Bloomberg, Vanderbilt and Whitney, to let a camera into their closed world, embarrassing excesses and all.

There has never been an inside look at the wealthy quite like it on screen. What drove him to do it? ‘‘Being afraid to talk about money in a wealth-driven society is a strange paradox,’’ Johnson said in an interview. ‘‘Why not face the realities of your culture honestly and fairly?’’

His movie casts America’s disingenuousness about wealth in a new light, but then again, so do Hilton’s misadventures in the Ozarks. Are her exhibitionist efforts any less ridiculous than those of rich men purporting to be hayseeds while campaigning for president among the livestock in Iowa? At least Hilton doesn’t want to run the country — not yet, anyway.

Copyright © 2003 The International Herald Tribune