Rhymes with "bitch"

The economy's tanking, so Hollywood responds with three shows that test our feelings about the privileged world of Prada, ponies and prenups.

Published October 25, 2003 10:38PM (EDT)

When I was 8 years old and my sister was 10, we wrote a musical called "Rich Girl, Poor Girl." In it, we told the timeless tale of a poor girl who spent her days scrubbing the streets and dreaming of being wealthy. One day she finds a 10-pound note, which she uses to enter a nearby private school (a very inexpensive private school), where all of the little rich girls make fun of her. In one duet, Sylvia, one of the richest girls at the school, complains to the headmaster about the poor girl's attendance.

Sylvia: She's so fat, she's so loud! Her head is always in a cloud!
She doesn't wash, or study hard! Her reading books are marred!

Headmaster: She'll go on a diet, she'll be so quiet, you'd better not make it into a riot!
She'll take a bath and do her math. She'll read "The Grapes of Wrath"!

Setting aside the fact that reading "The Grapes of Wrath" doesn't really tackle the problem of marred textbooks, our urge to demonize the wealthy was baldly demonstrated in our first masterpiece. Of course, we weren't alone in our hatred for the rich. Americans have a bad habit of encouraging individual success at all costs, then treating its indulgences as excessive and vulgar. Three upcoming programs -- MTV's "Rich Girls," HBO's "Born Rich," and Fox's "The Simple Life" -- reflect the fascination and ambivalence we have for the wealthy. How well or badly they come across, of course, is determined largely by the prejudices of the producers, and whether they intend for the close-up on America's most wealthy to incite thoughtful discussion or shameless rubbernecking.

It's not too hard to guess which category MTV's "Rich Girls" falls into. This reality show (premiering 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 28) follows Ally Hilfiger (yes, that Hilfiger) and Jaime Gleicher, two very wealthy girls whose lives seem to consist of shopping, getting spa treatments, and screeching into their cellphones. Apparently Ally and Jaime took the idea for the show to MTV. Can you imagine the unbridled joy at network headquarters that day? It's not hard to see why they'd be salivating over this gem. Although Ally and Jaime are listed as producers on the show (what can that possibly mean?), the emphasis here definitely seems to be on plucking out their most absurd or humiliating moments for our glee and disgust.

Fortunately, these two are more than willing to humiliate themselves for our entertainment and appear giddy with delight over being on camera. They quickly demonstrate that they're anxious to prance showily into dangerous territory almost the second the cameras start to roll. In one of the first scenes, where the girls chat about the prom that night while getting manicures at the Frederic Fekkai Salon, they carry on the kind of sassy, bold talk that teenagers trot out when they hope someone might be eavesdropping.

Jaime: OK, but half of me doesn't want to have sex with him, though, because it's very cliché to lose your virginity on prom night.

Ally: This is true.

Jaime: It's very cliché.

Ally: It's not gonna feel good.

Likewise, the two like to talk a good show about how enlightened and egalitarian they are despite their class status, but it's not clear that they've considered such things before the cameras were switched on. Riding home in the limo after a several-thousand-dollar shopping spree, the two girls discuss the importance of treating garbagemen like actual human beings. Then Jaime gets all thoughtful. "You know what I find is weird, kind of, Al?" she asks. "People pay money for clothes, but shouldn't it be, like, a free necessity, like water, because you need it?" Nice point, except that water isn't free, either. Later, Jaime introduces her close friend by explaining, "Liz treats every single person like an equal, whether it be the garbageman, the taxi driver, the saleswoman at Prada..." We get the picture.

Next we meet Michael, on whom Jaime has an unrequited crush that she imagines is mutual, despite the presence of Michael's tall, pretty girlfriend, Julia. Jaime ignores her own date to glare at Michael and Julia for most of the night. "I've accepted the fact that Michael is with Julia, but I do think that Julia feels really threatened by me," Jaime tells the camera. If Julia expresses her threatened feelings by sticking her tongue down Michael's throat, then Jaime might just be on to something.

Despite claims of loving everyone from garbagemen to Prada saleswomen equally, Jaime later informs a girl at the after-prom party, "I don't know you. I'm sorry, I can't have a conversation with people I don't know." Apparently wealth diminishes your ability to talk to strangers unless they're painting your toenails, ringing up your purchases, or taking out your trash.

Since this is exactly the kind of mutant thrill-ride that MTV is becoming known for, it's at first puzzling why these girls' parents didn't stand in the way of the project. What they were thinking and why they allowed this train wreck to happen is anybody's guess -- or it is until Gleicher's mother appears, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eagerly joining in a conversation about Jaime's soon-to-be-nonexistent virginity by volunteering that she lost her virginity on prom night as well. "It must not have been very good if I can't remember it!" she croons, and the twisted road map that led Jaime to the center of MTV's bull's-eye suddenly becomes upsettingly clear.

At the after-prom party, Jaime is feeling far more expansive than she was earlier. "My friends are so gifted. All these people in here are probably the most gifted people in the world," Jaime screams at a friend. "And they'll all be so famous one day. It's fucking ridiculous." Well, they'll all be famous for about one day, anyway, when this puppy hits the air. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families.

While MTV patiently observes Gleicher and Hilfiger in their natural habitat, Fox isn't remotely prepared to leave such matters up to chance. Thus, in the long-delayed premiere of "The Simple Life" (premiering -- at least for the time being -- at 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 2), Paris Hilton, hotel heiress, and Nicole Richie, "Dancing on the Ceiling" heiress, pack their bags and head to rural Arkansas, where they'll stay for five weeks with the Ledings, a farming family in the small town of Altus. After a big party and send-off by Paris' mommy and daddy (again, what were they thinking? Are they not familiar with Fox, the network of chaotic evil?), Nicole and Paris jet off to a secret location ("Where the fuck are we?" Nicole asks repeatedly) and, upon landing, are forced to haul their massive bags into the back of an old pickup truck and drive themselves to the family's farm.

Once they meet the Ledings and survey the room where they'll be staying, which is populated by flying insects and has a well in the middle of it ("What's a well?" Paris asks), the true nature of this escapade is beginning to dawn on them. "Maybe Fox didn't invite us out here to demonstrate our fabulousness and break down stereotypes of the rich like they said," their faces say. "Maybe this is really just about making us look like assholes." It's hard not to feel a little sorry for the girls when you see their faces drop.

But then they flatly refuse to help the poor grandmother pluck chickens for dinner. When they're instead given $50 and instructed to do the grocery shopping for the family, they sulk around the store looking for the stuff on the list. When the bill comes to $65, the girls simply hand the cashier 50 bucks.

Cashier: Is this all you have?

Nicole: Yeah. Can we just have it?

Cashier: No, you can't just have it! This is not a soup kitchen.

By the time the girls get out to the car, they're angry.

Nicole: He wouldn't just give it to us!

Paris: He was like, "This isn't a soup kitchen."

Nicole: I know! What does that mean, "soup kitchen"?

By this point, sympathy for the girls has dissipated into some mix of amusement, scorn and awe, but the comedy nudges out tragedy quickly as the girls get to know the family at the dinner table.

Nicole: Now, do you guys hang out at Wal-Mart?

The room is filled with blank faces.

Nicole: I've always heard that people hang out at Wal-Mart.

Paris: Why? What is Wal-Mart? 'Cause, like, they sell wall stuff?

Nicole: It's like Costco or like Sav-on.

Paris: You hang out there?

Nicole: In the South people hang out there.

One of the Leding children: We're not that bad!

This kind of honesty will make the show, if it keeps up. Instead of trying to seem knowledgeable, the girls are upfront about their ignorance. Plus, aside from a few moments of disgust or fear, they're being pretty nice to everyone they come into contact with. And, unlike MTV's rich girls, these two both seem to have a sense of the absurdity of their situation. When the girls are talking with the teenage son of the family, and he stops to go get his jacket, they're afforded a short moment of privacy.

Paris: He's sooo sweet!

Nicole: He's sweet.

Paris: He's cute.

Nicole: We should have a threesome with him.

The two of them are instantly doubled over, laughing, and it's clear that this show might be a lot of fun after all.

Unfortunately, "Paradise Hotel" aside, Fox isn't all that sophisticated or skilled about its reality-TV programming. While MTV manages to showcase the quirks of its rich girls, for better or worse, Fox feels it has to layer on the fictional hillbilly element extra thick. In the highlights, the girls are shoveling road kill and manhandling cows, when, based on what we've seen of them so far, it would probably be a lot more fun to watch them goof around and chat with cute local boys. After all, how many times can the girl in the fancy shoes squeal, "That's disgusting!" before it gets dull? Apparently locals in town concur, complaining less about the two women than the tactics of crew members, who seemed hellbent on shooting the ugliest parts of the town and allegedly set up a fake grape-stomping booth for the girls to take part in at a local fair. Why go to such great lengths to support your preconceived image of what the show is about, when so many entertaining moments will fall outside the boundaries of that image regardless?

The way MTV and Fox are parading around the rich folks for us to point and jeer and gawk at, it's utterly disarming to encounter Jamie Johnson's "Born Rich," an American Undercover documentary on HBO (premiering 10 p.m. on Monday). A 23-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, first-time filmmaker Johnson explores the complicated comforts and challenges of growing up with more money than you could possibly know what to do with. Somehow Johnson managed to persuade heirs of the Trump, Vanderbilt, Newhouse and Bloomberg fortunes, among others, to speak candidly on camera about everything from prenuptials to private planes. Unlike the frivolous, out-of-touch lightweights on "Rich Girls" and "The Simple Life," Johnson's subjects are self-aware, sensitive and intelligent, and seem to share an earnest desire to do something meaningful with their lives.

Hesitant as most of us are to feel sympathy for the filthy rich, anyone who's been unemployed for longer than expected, lived at home a little too long, or saved up money for a creative break only to spend the money without making any creative gains knows how difficult it can be to achieve goals that aren't motivated partially by a paycheck and an authority figure breathing down your neck. The truth is, unstructured time and unlimited money can often lead to depression, not to mention the strange plane on which those who can buy gallery space, pay for studio time, and produce TV shows find themselves. Am I accomplishing anything, or am I paying to appear as though I'm accomplishing something? While those who struggle to pay the bills may have a difficult time grasping the pitfalls of wealth, they are clearly reflected in these stories. Whitney-Vanderbilt heir Josiah Hornblower admits that he went through a period of depression in college and ended up taking two years off from school to work, a period he refers to as one of the happiest and most important times of his life. One of the jobs he had was working for an oil field services company, where he interacted with regular guys without high school degrees. Hornblower reports that "really what I learned is that working hard makes me feel good."

While Hornblower seems exceptionally well-adjusted and insightful about his position, Johnson himself sometimes appears utterly adrift on a sea of possibilities. His father seems like a nice guy, but seems to offer little in the way of active involvement in helping his son find his calling.

Many of the other kids seem slightly alienated from their families. When asked if her family approves of her life as an equestrian show-jumper, Georgina Bloomberg replies, "I'm doing what I love to do. It doesn't really matter to me what the hell they think." While obviously someone is keeping the groundsmen in rubber boots and keeping "My Pretty Pony" knee-deep in fresh oats, Bloomberg's independence may be more of a side effect of her young age than a sign that her relationship with her parents is suffering.

In contrast, S.I. Newhouse IV, heir to the Condé Nast fortune, is fairly outspoken about his alienation from his father. "A lot of people who know me know what my financial situation is. I do have a place in the city, my father's place," S.I. Newhouse IV explains from his dorm room at Haverford, "but it's not fun to go there. I feel like a guest in my own home."

And alienation from your parents has a disturbing edge among young heirs, since many of them have a strong fear of being cut off. Selfish as that might sound to an outsider, it's natural to fear being thrust into an entirely different world from the one you were raised in. For these kids, their inheritance not only messes with their sense of control over their lives but also clutters up the emotional landscape of their relationship with their parents. Still, when Luke Weil shudders to imagine a life without obscene amounts of money, it almost makes you feel sorry for him that he'll never experience the joy and freedom of having nothing to lose.

Enjoyable as it might be to scoff at these poor little rich kids, most of them are far too earnest and sharp not to like. Surprisingly, Ivanka Trump is particularly honest and low-key. At one point, she recalls the time a stranger approached her and said, "What does it feel like to be wealthy? What does it feel like to never have felt any pain?" Instead of feeling angry, she was astounded that anyone could be so foolish. And instead of feeling envious of these rich kids, mostly we feel sorry for those, rich and poor, who believe that money has the power to shield them from the difficult task of living.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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