Against the backdrop of an angry September sea, three young women in their late 20′s sat huddled deep in conversation under a navy umbrella at the Southampton Bathing Corporation. “Do you think she’ll get kicked out?” the blond girl asked excitedly, stabbing her shrimp and tomato salad. “I just can’t believe she actually said that!”
“Her family just joined the club,” replied one of the two brunettes gravely.
“Well, it’s kind of true,” said the third. All were referring to comments that their fellow club member, Christina Floyd, made in Johnson and Johnson heir Jamie Johnson’s documentary Born Rich , which also features appearances by Ivanka Trump, daughter of developer Donald Trump; Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and S.I. Newhouse IV, grandson of Condé Nast owner S.I. Newhouse.
Though Mr. Johnson’s film has been screened only a handful of times-most notably at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered last January-it caused a furor after the New York Post and other publications reported some of the indiscreet comments made by the film’s subjects, the children of wealthy, well-known and social families, some of whom said they had thought they were appearing in a student film that would never be seen by a large audience.
To their dismay, that audience will grow exponentially when the film, which has been acquired by HBO, screens at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Oct. 24 and on the pay-cable channel beginning Oct. 27. Born Rich will even be available on the HBO on Demand channel, a service that allows viewers to watch, pause and rewind the program as if it were a video.
“Had I known that it was going to be shown to the entire world on prime-time HBO-HBO now is as big as being on a network lately-I definitely don’t think I would’ve done it,” said 27-year-old Josiah Hornblower, a descendant of the Whitney and Vanderbilt clans who appears in the film.
The backlash that followed the Sundance screening and the first wave of press reports resulted in at least one lawsuit from one of the film’s participants-Luke Weil, the son of Lorne Weil, chief executive of Scientific Games, which supplies instant tickets, validation systems and facilities-management services to two-third’s of the country’s lotteries-and a number of angry, embarrassed families who had heretofore observed a code of silence about their wealth and privilege. As Mr. Johnson’s lawyer tells him in Born Rich : “They’ve always made it gospel that you don’t want to talk about your family.”
As the film’s subjects and their families gird themselves for a new wave of publicity, the majority of Born Rich kids who spoke to The Transom said they regretted participating in the film, especially because they were about to be judged for comments that they made as long as four years ago, when they were younger and, they said, much less mature.
“This has been a total nightmare,” said one of the film’s subjects on the condition of anonymity. “I look like a total moron, and that’s not who I am.”
So what did they say that has caused such a fuss? The Transom recently saw the version of Born Rich that screened at Sundance and took some notes. In that version, Ms. Floyd, the daughter of renowned golfer Ray Floyd, took Mr. Johnson on a tour of the Southampton social clubs to which her family belongs. Of the Meadow Club in Southampton, she said: “People would not be very excited if someone came in with a black person.” When Mr. Johnson pointed to a black person playing tennis, Ms. Floyd replied: “Oh, he’s probably a pro.”
At the Southampton Bathing Corporation, Ms. Floyd told the filmmaker, “I brought three Jewish girls to the club today for lunch,” then added prophetically: “Who knows, I may get kicked out tomorrow.” Ms. Floyd did not return calls seeking comment.
Mr. Johnson, who sounds like Kermit the Frog imitating Mr. Rogers, doesn’t have too many embarrassing moments -perhaps because he’s the director-but there was one tense scene with his father, James Johnson.
“Your nervousness about this film could mean you’re nervous about who you are,” Jamie told his clearly uncomfortable dad. “Is it that you do not want me to make the same mistakes you did?”
“Maybe,” said Johnson père .
Ms. Trump and Ms. Bloomberg didn’t fare badly at all in the film. And young Mr. Newhouse’s only real faux pas was his remark that “my family has about $20 billion of attainable assets.”
The real loose lips, it turned out, belonged to Cody Franchetti, Milliken textile heir and great-great-grandson of Italian aristocrat Giorgio Franchetti, and Mr. Weil.
At times, Mr. Franchetti sounded like a junior Berlusconi. “I find guilt [over wealth] absolutely senseless. It’s basically for old women and nuns,” he said in one scene. In another, he looked in the mirror at a new jacket he’s wearing and said: “Clinton wears this kind of thing. It’s so vulgar. See how low the lapels are!”
But Mr. Franchetti was not above a little vulgarity himself. After pronouncing that “It is the duty of the rich to cultivate themselves,” he told Mr. Johnson: “I’m reading a book and I’m thinking about a pussy, but I find when I get the pussy, I’m thinking about the book.”
As for Mr. Weil, it’s understandable why he hired attorney Mike Heller last September to sue Mr. Johnson, charging that the documentary had “caused myself and my family irreparable personal humiliation and damage.”
Early in the version that screened at Sundance, Mr. Weil seemed reluctant to take part. “I really can’t believe I’m doing this,” he said. “I have sort of apprehensions. I would worry about what my parents would think. Describing a bunch of people’s wealth-it’s just kind of tacky.”
But Mr. Weil eventually became quite comfortable in front of the camera as he described the ups and downs of growing up wealthy. “I was picked up from school to go on holidays in a huge limo. It was embarrassing,” he told Mr. Johnson. “I made an effort to identify with, like, maids working in our house or baby-sitters.”
He also talked about his experiences with drugs. “We had incredibly precocious drug habits that we made such a point of flaunting to the world,” he said. At boarding school, if some small-town kid came up to me, I could be like, ‘Fuck you, I’m from New York. Piss off-my family could buy your family.’”
By all accounts, Mr. Weil remains one of the subjects of the edited Born Rich -like everyone involved, he signed a release form-but whether he and his lawyer were successful in at least trimming some of his comments is a matter of speculation.
Mr. Weil, Mr. Heller and Mr. Johnson declined to comment for this article, but one source familiar with the film said that Mr. Weil “looks a lot better than he did before.”
And though an HBO spokeswoman told The Transom that “we did not change the content of the film,” explaining that the only changes to the film were the addition of music and graphics, a number of Born Rich ‘s subjects were under the impression that the documentary had changed since its Sundance debut.
“The parts with Jamie and his dad were trimmed down a lot,” said Mr. Newhouse. “Of course, it was cut for time, and now it’s more about the other kids.”
This past July, Mr. Johnson invited Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Newhouse and Ms. Trump-the three participants who come out best in the film-to accompany him to Los Angeles to promote the film at the Television Critics Association convention.
Mr. Hornblower, who now works as a research analyst at a small New York investment firm, took the trip-though, he said, he has some regrets about doing the film. He wishes he hadn’t revealed how much money he made each year and dislikes how he was portrayed in an article that the film’s producer, novelist Dirk Wittenborn, wrote for W magazine. “I just feel the hair going up on my neck,” Mr. Hornblower said. “I just cringe.”
And, of course, there’s the “embarrassment and humiliation with family,” Mr. Hornblower said. “They realize I did it, it’s something that can’t be erased and they trust me and they love me so there’s no reason to get upset or mad.” But he added: “It’s worse for other kids though. You really see some kids that don’t come across very well. You will not like them after seeing the movie.”
Mr. Newhouse, who’s currently working at the family-owned newspaper in New Orleans, the Times-Picayune , was considerably more opaque about his family’s reaction. “I’m going to have to say I really don’t have an answer about it,” he said.
Mr. Newhouse, who was a college freshman when he was first interviewed, trained virtually all of his criticism for Born Rich on his performance: “The parts where I thought I was well spoken weren’t nearly as good as I thought,” he said. “He got some stuff of me fencing. I was really flattered, but I was angry at myself cause it was not my best fencing.”
The Condé Nast heir also noted that he had changed a great deal since he was first interviewed in 1999. “I like the things I said, but I think I’m a little less bitter now,” he said. “It was my first year of college and I had a lot of things going on and I just wanted someone to say it to and put it down in concrete.” He still remains on friendly terms with Mr. Johnson.
As for the other stars of Born Rich , Mr. Newhouse said: “Some of these kids just said some terrible things, if you ask me it just said bad things about them.”
Juliet Hartford, the daughter of A.&P. heir Huntington Hartford and a 27-year-old model and artist living in New York, said she doesn’t really have a problem with how she’s depicted in the film, but she added she didn’t know if she would have done Born Rich if she knew how many people were going to see it. She also said she thought Mr. Johnson was trying to make a documentary along the lines of Seven Up , the series of British documentaries, most of them directed by Michael Apted, that revisited a group of British children every seven years. “I think Jamie wanted to film people again in five years, but I don’t think anyone’s going to agree in five years to be filmed again,” she said.
Mr. Franchetti said that, for the most part, he enjoyed the film, which he saw at Sundance. “It’s not that flattering for me, but I think it has a good dose of humor,” he said.
If he was upset about anything it was his portrayal in the press. Because he talks about modeling in the film, Mr. Franchetti complained that a number of publications labeled him as a “model” in their coverage. “It’s something I did, but that’s not what I do now,” he said. Asked what he does now, Mr. Franchetti said, “I say ‘nothing.’ It’s not anyone’s business to be defined by what you do.”
Mr. Franchetti said that he has been unable to decide whether his family thought it was a good thing for him to be “direct” about his wealth in Born Rich , or wished he had kept his mouth shout. “Coming from a family where you just never talk about these things and it is so taboo, it’s actually detrimental growing up to have this secrecy about it,” he said. Mr. Franchetti paused a bit, then said: “My family I think is quite, they feel, they’re indifferent. I’m indifferent. I think it is what it is. I’ve been living alone since I’ve been 14 so I’m very independent. So I don’t really care.”
The Grateful Dead
“I think there’s more than just dead people in here,” said Jerry Orbach, a.k.a. Law and Order ‘s Det. Lennie Briscoe, standing in the back of Elaine’s on the evening of Sept. 25. He was staring at a suspicious pile of coffee-table books titled Law and Order: Crime Scenes , the latest creation by prolific producer Dick Wolf and the show’s on-staff photographer, Jessica Burstein.
Mr. Orbach, hunched over and wearing a Briscoe-like red paisley tie, picked up one of the plastic-encased tomes and handled it furtively. The Transom suggested that he rip off the plastic wrap and peer inside, but-stickler for the law that he plays-he just shrugged and set the book down. “No, I can’t,” he said. “It’s sealed.”
Had he opened the book, Mr. Orbach would’ve found photos of (among other things) a severed arm, a half-dozen gushing head wounds, two deaths by drowning, a child run over by a car and a dead camel. But they were all just actors. The photos, along with character bios, script excerpts and a lively essay by Mr. Wolf, comprise an homage to the 13-year-old series.
“At any given time, there are well over nine million people across the world seeing one of the shows on one of the outlets,” said Mr. Wolf, his sharp eyes glistening below his pronounced brow. “It’s like visual nicotine. Some people get addicted.”
Just then, as in a real episode, a wealthy, Pucci-clad divorcée entered the room. It was Sharon Bush, the perky, blond soon-to-be ex-wife of first brother Neil Bush and the mother of model Lauren Bush.
“I love Law and Order ! Of course!” she tittered. Whether she was referring to the show or to the fact that she was in town to visit her divorce attorneys was unclear, but the irony seemed to escape Ms. Bush. Logic seemed to escape her, too. “I watch it all the time. But I don’t watch TV, except with my younger daughter, and she only watches The Bachelor .”
Which means you don’t watch Law and Order , ma’am? Just the facts, please.
Ms. Bush’s brow furrowed. “Well, my daughter is really too young for it. Of course I also watch the news, but the news is depressing,” she said. Suddenly remembering her right to remain silent, she whispered something to the restaurant’s proprietress, Elaine Kaufman, and then dashed away.
Good thing Ms. Bush didn’t bring her kid to the party. Outside the restaurant, Nicole Vicas, a 26-year-old platinum-blond actress, was sprawled on a cocktail table, playing dead behind yellow crime-scene tape. Her face had blade marks on it; her hair was caked with blood. At 8 p.m., she took a break and groggily considered her motivation for the part. “This is really hard. I’ve been on the show before,” she said, licking fake pus off her thumb. “But last time I was dead, I think I was shot. That was easier.” She spit out some blood and the smiled. “But at least I’m getting paid really well. And I got a picture of me dead with Jerry Orbach.”
-John Gallagher and Anna Jane Grossman
The Transom Also Hears ….
· The solid-jawed gentleman with a video camera documenting the Sept. 29 benefit “A Life As Art: A Tribute to Mickey Ruskin and Max’s Kansas City” was too young to have gone to the old Max’s on 213 Park Avenue, but knew someone who could bring him up to speed.
“My father went to Max’s,” said 33-year-old Jojo Pennebaker, whose father is Don’t Look Back documentarian D.A. Pennebaker. Now, Pennebaker fils was making his own documentary about Max’s, which he’s calling A Walk on the Inside , and his pappy isn’t involved. Mr. Pennebaker said the film “is something from which I’ve been able to reconnect with my father.” He looked around the room at the middle-aged men and women, consuming pizza and holding forth on their old friend Andy, and said, “It’s amazing to see them as the human beings that they are. I can relate to them now. [Growing up,] these were people that were just odd-looking half uncles to me at the beach.”
-Elon R. Green
· That DUMBO finally is the new Tribeca! On Friday, Oct. 10-just in time to start the weekend brunch line snaking around the corner-Bubby’s Pie Company will open a Brooklyn outpost on Main Street in the neighborhood that has become popular with artists and Wall Street guys who like converting factories into big lofts with Sub-Zero refrigerators. Bubby’s original location, on the corner of Hudson and N. Moore streets, has offered comfort food to Wall Street guys, artists and Robert De Niro since 1990.