The Rich Are Different—They Spend More

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD: HOW THE FORBES 400 MAKE—AND SPEND—THEIR FORTUNES
By Peter Bernstein and Annalyn Swan
Alfred A. Knopf, 416 pages, $26.95

“We like to read about rich people in the newspapers,” Mark Twain once wrote. “The papers know it and they do their best to keep this appetite liberally fed.” We also like to read about rich people in magazines, and if they can be nicely compartmentalized into neat lists, crassly and gleefully ranked by net worth, we like it even more—as demonstrated by the popularity of the annual Forbes 400 list. And now the magazine that enthusiastically chronicles the career trajectories and spending habits of the very rich has collaborated with Knopf and journalists Peter Bernstein and Annalyn Swan to publish All the Money in the World: How the Forbes 400 Make—and Spend—Their Fortunes, an exploration of the lives of current and former members of the list, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

The book is divided into three parts: “What It Takes,” “Making It” and “Spending It.” In typical business-book fashion, the first section makes generalizations about broad qualities that have contributed to success of the wealthiest 400—luck, education, intelligence and a propensity for risk-taking among them. Spotlighting people with good luck, relatively high intelligence and an ability to accurately assess risk would seem to be an exercise in telling the reader what he already knows, and anecdotal evidence makes up the bulk of justification for the authors’ theses. The authors extrapolate in part from aggregate statistics (members of the 400 in their 30’s average higher levels of wealth, the number of members with M.B.A.’s has risen since the 1980’s, etc.) that, while sometimes interesting, are not necessarily indicative of a causal relationship between the data and the trends the book supposedly identifies.

The second section examines what the book considers to be four types of wealth-generation: blue-collar fortunes, West Coast money, entertainment and media, and a chapter inexplicably titled “Beyond Wall Street,” which is primarily about hedge funds and private equity, a very significant part of Wall Street. The arbitrary divisions seem to exist mostly to provide some structure to what would otherwise be a wildly disparate collection of anecdotes with few recurring themes and fewer obvious transitions.

The anecdotes collectively serve as a good primer for readers who don’t regularly consume business news and wouldn’t be familiar with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’ takeover of RJR Nabisco, the garage in which William Hewlett and David Packard founded their eponymous company, or George Lucas’ Star Wars merchandising successes, all of which are covered. The occasional appearance of amusing factoids redeems some of the book’s flaws by adding entertainment value where informational value is lacking. Does the reader need to know that Paul Tudor Jones wore Bruce Willis’ red sneakers from Die Hard when trading? No. Does the reader want to know? Probably.

The third section is the predictable but requisite chronicling of how the rich spend their money. (The short answer: expensive stuff, politics and philanthropy.) A chapter on family feuds, awkwardly jammed into the middle of the section, rehashes the Koch family’s interminable squabbling, J. Paul Getty’s general asshole-ishness and J. Howard Marshall’s infamous acquisition of a much younger wife whose tabloid fame has probably won her more column inches of media coverage than any of the other proper names in the preceding 271 pages of the text.

Rather than end their book with anything so obvious as a conclusion, the authors append a four-page afterword overpromisingly titled “Money and Happiness” that consists primarily of mostly forgettable quotations about money and happiness. (Readers of the magazine will recognize this as the standard back-page feature.)

Interspersed throughout are boxed items of rich-people trivia, many of them taken from the Forbes archives. (“1987—Harvey Roberts ‘Bum’ Bright, whose fortune comes from oil, real estate, trucking, and banking, arranges bills in his wallet by serial number and brushes his teeth a lucky number of times.”) The boxes serve the same function as sidebars in a magazine, and their frequency is outstripped only by an annoying plague of charts that serve no purpose other than to illustrate basic data points already mentioned in the text—data points so simple that illustration adds no value. These bells and whistles wouldn’t be so irritating if they didn’t thoroughly disrupt the already discursive narrative, which is held together by only the most tenuous of transition sentences.

Stilted prose and a lack of academic rigor are not particularly surprising in a genre in which the ostensible gold standard is Who Moved My Cheese? Business books are notoriously simplistic, and tend to have a self-help-ish subtext that makes even biographically oriented material feel like an aspiring businessman’s instruction manual. If All the Money in the World is a thinly veiled how-to book, the broad strokes are theoretically forgivable. But when broad strokes become cartoons—and the rich are certainly easy to caricature—it’s a disappointment.

Wealth is not an easy subject to address. It has the capacity to corrupt and amplify elements of human character in radical ways. Portrayals of it that are merely voyeuristic tend to avoid discussion of its deleterious effects, such as its corrosive impact on personal morality. This book tiptoes around the issue, dredging up various family feuds, alluding to infidelities and abuse, but never touching the emotional core, determined in its simplicity not to alienate its subjects.

To be fair, the authors—veteran journalists with plenty of admirable publishing credits—delicately warn the reader from the beginning that their book isn’t going to going to address any of the difficult questions that make the subject of wealth controversial and interesting. “What does it say about America that the wealth of four hundred individuals should, in 2006, equal almost one-tenth of the annual output of a nation of 300 million people? To skeptics, the Forbes 400 symbolizes a period of avarice, excess, and selfishness,” they write, dangling before the reader the tantalizing prospect of a provocative discussion. Then they callously snatch it away. “All the Money in the World does not join in these arguments.” And that’s a shame.

Elizabeth Spiers was the founding editor of Gawker.com. Her first novel, And They All Die in the End, will be published next year by Riverhead.