Before there was Gossip Girl, there was Born Rich.
The 2003 documentary was the brainchild of Jamie Johnson, the 23-year-old Johnson & Johnson heir. While not a documentarian by trade, Johnson brought his vision to life through a combination of guts, determination, and unlimited self-funding. Over a two-year period, he filmed his wealthy friends—including real estate heiress Ivanka Trump. At 22, Trump was as blissfully unaware as the rest of us of what the future would hold. This lack of awareness results in a candor that, when combined with some uniquely 2000s apparel, makes Born Rich such a compelling portrait of our potential first daughter.
Johnson’s doc is like MTV Cribs with a conscience, or NYC Prep without a script. It follows Vanderbilts, Trumps, and Bloombergs as they shop, drink, and elucidate the whites-only policies of their Hamptons tennis clubs. In the film, Johnson is about to come into his inheritance, and enlists his friends to help him figure out what all that wealth really means. Born Rich is fascinating in spite of itself. No one looks like Blake Lively, or talks like Chuck Bass (although they do share his passion for high-end men’s scarves). The cast, with a few exceptions, is somehow both abhorrent and dull. The great-grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II does a talking head while chain-smoking. A prep school kid time stamps his LSD phase between 6th and 7th grade, and remembers intimidating a classmate by threatening to “buy your family.” Another heir gets a little teary when he talks about his character-building experiencing working on an oil rig with guys who never graduated from high school, musing, “I think they also learned some things from me.”
The standard fare of the film isn’t caviar, but deep, existential navel-gazing. What sets Johnson’s cast apart from any other group of introspective 20-year-olds is, of course, their ridiculous wealth. These kids have so much money that they literally don’t know what to do with it. Johnson, who, like the rest of his friends, will never need to work a day in his life, is told by his father to consider building a collection of historical documents… as a career. Johnson ponders the fact that “There are no courses in college about being a hardworking and productive rich person—it’s something you have to figure out yourself.”
Given the gravity of Jamie Johnson’s mission to not be totally useless, it feels unfair to comb Born Rich for the must unflattering, decadent sound bites. Then again, it’s so easy. One heiress, struggling to answer Johnson’s question about how she intends to spend her inheritance, cracks, “give it all to the homeless!” They both cackle like rich people cartoon characters. A Whitney rides the subway and talks about the irony that his mother, whose family turned a ridiculous profit on public transportation, has never used a MetroCard. The commuters on the edge of the shot seem less amused by this irony. A European textile heir takes a page from every freshman virgin ever, describing his interests as “very Dionysian”: “I’m reading a book and I’m thinking about pussy, but as soon as I get the pussy, I’m thinking about a book.” Bummer!
If you’re an aspiring early aughts heir or heiress looking for tips, you’re in the right place; Born Rich might be a mediocre documentary, but it’s a fabulous how-to manual. Quaaludes, fencing, Cristal, and prenups are non-negotiable. Owning a museum is cool, but building Grand Central is even cooler. And if you get your suits custom-made, which you do, avoid a low lapel at all costs—that’s the kind of thing that Bill Clinton wears, and it makes him look like “a restaurant owner.” Also: PalmPilots! Tiny Gucci handbags! Helicopters to the Hamptons! Cipriani!
Rich people aren’t like us, and they don’t want to be. Johnson’s cast overwhelmingly expresses a preference for cavorting and copulating with their own class; “I’ve never actually dated outside my social background. I guess it’s your compatibility, somebody on your same wavelength, understanding where you came from,” one interviewee explains. “I’m sure I would but he’d have to understand that I love going shopping somewhere and spending all this money on something and (someone of a lesser class) might get mad at me for being stupid and spending all this money on a Gucci purse but of course I’m like ‘I have to have it!’” To hear Johnson & friends tell it, they’re the real victims of wealth inequality—nobody else understands them, so they have no choice but to endlessly sleep with one another. They’re like misunderstood snowflakes—rare, (emotionally) fragile, and very, very, white.
Born Rich, which ended up airing on HBO and showing at Sundance (#AllPassionProjectsMatter?), isn’t inherently political. It does, however, feature two political daughters: Georgina Bloomberg and Ivanka Trump. Bloomberg appears briefly in the film, and introduces each of her horses at length. The doc spends more time on these animals than it does on any person of color or individual who makes less than six figures a year. Literally surrounded by her own horses, Georgina concludes, “having the last name Bloomberg sucks.” Ivanka, by contrast, is “absolutely proud to be a Trump.” Decked out in her 2000s finest—pin straight hair, tube top, and delicate cross necklace—Trump has a decidedly more optimistic outlook than her moody peers. While she acknowledges the pressure of following her famous parents, she feels that, “It’s not a bad shadow to be under.” In a later scene, Ivanka walks us through her childhood bathroom, complete with Madonna clock, Poison and Motley Crue corner, and Bon Jovi posters. Between the 90210 poster and the princess canopy, it’s easy to forget that Ivanka is a Trump—until the camera pans to her 68th floor view of Central Park.
Trump goes on to dish on the discomfort of her parents’ high-profile divorce and stress how highly she values sincerity. She also shares her lifelong passion for real-estate development, staring at the New York skyline and wondering “what patch of sky maybe one of my buildings will be in.” But the most scintillating anecdote naturally features her father, Donald Trump: “I remember once my father and I were walking down Fifth Avenue and there was a homeless person sitting right outside of Trump Tower… it was around the same time as the divorce. And I remember my father pointing to him and saying, ‘You know that guy has 8 billion dollars more than me.’ Because he was in such extreme debt at that point. And me thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ He was sitting outside of Trump Tower and I’m looking at him going… And I didn’t understand… it makes me all the more proud of my parents that they got through that.”
Ivanka may not have inherited her father’s insatiable hunger for the spotlight, but she clearly picked up his talent for transformation. Born Rich is a time capsule that captures the 23-year-old model at a crucial fork in the road. Trump arrived at the film’s HBO premiere with her then-boyfriend, James “Bingo” Gubelmann. Gubelmann—or Bingo, as I would prefer to call him—was most recently in the news for a 2016 drug bust, in which he was caught receiving a vial of cocaine from Maroon 5 bassist Mickey Madden. Ivanka and Bingo split in 2005, and she started dating her future husband, Jared Kushner, shortly after. This is the Ivanka who might actually get her father elected: devoted wife, mother of three, and shoe-peddling scion. Born Rich reminds us that the responsible Ivanka we know and even kind of like was once a hotbed of Paris Hilton potential (who was BFFs with Paris herself).
Then again, Ivanka’s entertaining rich-kid persona wouldn’t be out of place at this year’s RNC/Benghazi Witch Hunt featuring Scott Baio, which bears more resemblance to a Hellmouth-opening episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than a legitimate political convention. Born Rich, the story of 11 heirs and heiresses who live in complete ignorance of the outside world, is a potent reminder of just how removed people like Donald and Ivanka really are. Ivanka, just like her father, is the financial beneficiary of a broken system that’s anything but meritocratic. And Ivanka, just like her father, will reinvent her image—and her politics—when necessary. Ivanka, who has been described as one of her father’s most trusted advisers, has contributed significantly to Democrats over the past decade, including $3,400 to Hillary Clinton, and even ran a fundraiser for potential Hillary running mate Corey Booker as recent as 2013. Out of more than 30 political contributions, Ivanka has only supported three Republican campaigns. The mercenary mutability that allows Ivanka to endorse her father’s newfound Republican values is the only consistent thing about her—that, and her lifelong membership to the cult of Trump.
While today’s political operative bears little resemblance to Born Rich’s real estate heiress, they do share a pride in the Trump name and a devotion to Donald Trump’s vision. Watching the film, it becomes clear that Ivanka, despite her close friendship with Chelsea Clinton and un-Trumpian intelligence and grace, will not be pulling a Ted Cruz. Even as Johnson captured his peers railing against their families’ expectations and demands, he never managed to fracture Ivanka’s obedient façade. In an altogether exploitative and not-so-flattering film, Trump is poised and unflinching; a preview of her RNC speech, where she will doubtlessly deliver equally devotional talking points.
Ivanka’s class will set her apart from the RNC chaos, just like it differentiated her from her Born Rich peers. But she’s still a willing and enthusiastic participant in the madness.