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Tell me tell me, how to be, a Billi-onai-ai-ai-aire!
on August 15, 2007
The Rich, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, are different from us. Fitzgerald was right: they *are* different from us.
They own 500-foot yachts, for one thing.
For another, they own watches that are more expensive than a Rolls Royce. They hire "household managers", uber-butlers who double as managerial major domos, to run their vast, sprawling estates, and when they buzz their Household Manager to have Jeevesy 'bring the car around', they're probably talking about their 1.1 million dollar Bugatti Veyron or 750K McClaren Mercedes supercar---or if they're in a downscale mood, maybe it'll just be the Maybach.
You know, to slum around in.
As Bob Dylan (himself, by now, no doubt a 'Richistani') once sang "The Times they are a-Changing"---though not the way Dylan and his hippy brethren might have imagined. We find ourselves in an era of ostentatious wealth, in a time when the Forbes 400 is made up solely of billionaires, in a time when the rich are getting richer---much richer, fabulously richer!---and the rest of us? Well, forget about it.
That's the ostensible subject of Robert Frank's book "Richistan", which, on the whole, is a light, airy, engaging little fluff-piece that takes the reader from one enclave of Richies to another: from a Palm Beach Red Cross fundraiser to Butler Boot Camp in Colorado, from a man who made his fortune building teensy little ceramic villages to the grinding account of a tech billionaire who lost his entire fortune during the Dot Com bust, from billionaire philanthropy to what Frank calls a 'new Rich man's politics'.
Frank, in his introduction, bills his little survey of the uber-wealthy as a work of anthropology: get in, take lots of pictures, ask a lot of questions, boogie out, research report in hand. Now, granted, Anthropology takes a lot of different forms, but Robert Frank certainly proves one thing: if you're going to do an anthropological study of a strange & insular tribe, it's a lot more fun hunkering down in the clubhouse over Johnny Walker Black or at the Polo track canvassing your subject as opposed to sweating it on the veldt studying a bunch of spear wielding massai.
Rather than venture deep into the ominous, inky blackness of the deep jungle, though, Frank confines himself to the coastline: this is a book of shallow little fly-bys at the rich, rather than the more adventurous safaris into the interior.
You'll learn how one rich guy runs his charitable giving in what Frank bills as an 'exciting new philanthropy' (uh, he uses---a spreadsheet! and he, um,---sets benchmarks!), and you'll learn how a bunch of Colorado rich people carried out a political coup (they, um---spent lots of money! and, uh,---used the Internet!).
But that's pretty much it. There's nothing here that you don't already know: chances are you know the astronomical rate at which the U.S. has been minting millionaires, or that a cool million isn't that cool anymore because it doesn't mean what it used to, or that the Rich are driving a boom in luxury goods---including little toy rich dogs like chows, uber-luxury whips like Bentley & Rolls-Royce, the advent of million dollar supercars getting totaled minutes after being purchased, and of course the crazy yacht phenomenon, with yachts getting bigger & more opulent than ever.
You know all that, right?
Well, maybe you don't. And if you don't, then "Richistan" will be a nice, amusing little read: an airplane read, a read you absorb quickly (it took me about 45 minutes) on the planeride from Portland to Topeka. It's sorta like a pamphlet.
Or, for that matter, a Wall Street Journal sidebar. That's not a surprise, because that's what Robert Frank is: the wealth reporter for the WSJ. The writing here is not unlike what you'd find there; it's breezy, somewhat bland, not particularly contentious, and about as shallow as the deep end of the kiddy pool at the Las Vegas Ritz.
If that's all you're up for, then "Richistan" should be just fine. But if you're looking for something deeper---something more akin to, say, David Brook's classic "Bobos in Paradise" (not a book I always agreed with, but one that was both rigorously researched, socially edgy & brilliantly written) then you'll find "Richistan" keenly disappointing, poorly edited, & fairly stupid.
Case in point: by the end, you'll be ready to gouge your eyes out with chopsticks if you have to read the word "Richistani" one more time.
But that said, "Richistan" just isn't all that. With its super-wide margins, ultra-big font, and news-of-the-week format, it's more stocking-stuffer fluff than anything more serious or substantial.