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|Posted June 11, 2007|
Lifestyles of the Rich
A Wall Street Journal reporter tracks the lives of the absurdly wealthy.
|A Journey Through the|
|American Wealth Boom and|
|the Lives of the New Rich.|
|By Robert Frank.|
|277 pp. Crown Publishers. $24.95.|
|By ALEX BEAM|
ALL good journalism is really travel writing. You prepare for a serious story the way a foreign correspondent would. You buy the maps, you learn the language, you hang out with the locals not just the taxi drivers! and then you write.
Thats what Robert Frank has done. He writes the Wealth Report column for The Wall Street Journal. (Who writes the Euchred by Capitalism column, I wonder?) In his new book, Richistan, he posits the existence of a little-known country within our country. This parallel country of the rich was once just a village, he argues, but now its an entire nation.
|For her birthday, one 'aristokid' asked to fly commercial, to 'see what an airport looks like from the inside.'|
The data bear Frank out. It was a huge deal when John D. Rockefeller became the countrys first billionaire. Adjusted for inflation, he had $14 billion less than the net worth of each of Sam Waltons five children today. There were an estimated 13 American billionaires in 1985. Now there are more than 1,000. In 2005, America minted 227,000 new financial millionaires, men and women with more than $1 million in investible assets. There are as many millionaires in North Carolina as there are in India. And so on.
Frank argues that the rich are financial foreigners within their own country. They have their own health care system, staffed by concierge doctors. They have their own travel network of timeshare (or private) jets and destination clubs. For her birthday, one 11-year-old aristokid pleads to fly commercial, to ride on a big plane with other people. I want to see what an airport looks like on the inside.
Like an anthropologist in the Amazon basin, Frank goes native. Except instead of a loincloth, he dons a white tuxedo to attend the International Red Cross Ball in Palm Beach, where he meets Jackie Bradley, a buxom blonde squeezed into a jewel-encrusted Joy Cherry gown. Bradley is chatting up her new book, The Bombshell Bible. Its really more about my inner life, she says. Im hoping to use it to help other women like me.
And Frank learns the lingo. Most Richistanis earn their citizenship through a liquidity event, when someone buys out their company, rather than through inheritance. Hedge fundies prowl the nether regions of Manhattan for trendy paintings, or noncorrelated assets. Affluent is Richistani code for not really rich. According to Frank, you need about $10 million to be considered entry-level rich.
Frank also plumbs Richistans secret status codes. You might have thought that a Mercedes SLK or a Rolex were flash possessions. Wrong! In Richistan, they are reverse status symbols. The affluent drive Mercedes; the rich drive Maybachs. Franck Muller hardly advertises their bejeweled watches, which top out around $600,000, because they might attract the wrong kind of attention. Like yours.
If you experience status anxiety, this book isnt for you. You cant avoid the conclusion that everyone is a lot richer than you are, whether he deserves to be or not. Heres a guy, Ed Bazinet, who got rich making little ceramic villages with light bulbs inside them. How hard can that be?
On a more reassuring note, its nice to learn that the rich suffer status anxiety, too. When Richistanis are asked how much money would make them feel secure, they inevitably choose a figure that is double their own net worth. Because so many newly enriched entrepreneurs hail from middle-class backgrounds, they hate being called rich. Chauffeurs, for instance, are out. Rolls-Royce says 95 per cent of its customers drive the cars themselves. Tim Blixseth, the founder of the Yellowstone Club and other gated hideaways, tells Frank: I dont like most rich people. They can be arrogant. This from a man who owns two Shih Tzus named Learjet and G2. As in Gulfstream G2. If you were rich, you would get it.
These arent people who spend a lot of time looking in the mirror. Because if they did, they would see, as Frank does, the contradictions behind their middle-class protestations and high-profile philanthropic ventures on the one hand, and their ordering alligator-skin toilet seats for their private jets on the other. Frank is not a flashy writer, but he is smart enough to let the material come to him. When he sits down with the inflatable-pool-toy magnate Simon Fireman for lunch at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fireman pulls from his jacket pocket a two-page spreadsheet of all his charitable donations for over a decade, which he said I was free to publish.
If Richistan is travel journalism, then ... do we want to go there? Not much. The people sound dreadful and not very happy, to boot. But consider the alternative. Frank gets a glimpse of the world outside when he attends Fort Lauderdales International Boat Show, right after Hurricane Wilma has plowed through town. Thousands of residents in the poorer sections of Fort Lauderdale (most of them black or Hispanic) were left homeless, Frank writes, sweating through the tropical heat, without electricity. Meanwhile, at the Bahia Mar Marina, a chocolate fountain gurgled and the $20 million yachts and vendor pavilions were perfectly chilled.
Look out the window: Its Pooristan. Hmmm. I wonder who lives there. And will anyone be writing a book about them?
Alex Beam is a columnist at The Boston Globe and the author, most recently, of Gracefully Insane.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book Review, of Sunday, June 10, 2007.
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