NEW YORK – A spate of "rich kid" programs are hitting the small screen, giving the public ample opportunity to indulge in a favorite pastime: making fun of rich people.
HBO’s documentary “Born Rich,” made by Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson, captures the foibles of kids whose parents are millionaires; MTV’s new reality show “Rich Girls” follows a pair of wealthy friends who insist they "treat everyone the same," whether it be "the garbage man or the saleswoman at Prada"; and “The Simple Life” pokes fun at Hilton hotel heiress Paris Hilton (search), who tries out life on a farm for the duration of the show.
With these programs, Hollywood finally seems to have tapped into Americans’ delight in seeing the rich look ridiculous. While there has always been hostility toward extremely wealthy people, these shows pry into their lives and lambast them, unlike programs such as “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” which celebrated the glamour of having gobs of money.
“The only thing more fun than watching people in these glorious surroundings is watching them go off the deep end of their fancy swimming pool,” said pop culture expert Robert Thompson, who equates the trend to watching business bigwigs taken down by scandal.
“It’s the same delight people have in following stories of people like Martha Stewart,” he said. “It’s fun to fantasize about the trappings of wealth, but we’re sitting at home on an old couch and it’s even more fun to see people getting into trouble.”
While the subjects in each of the programs have less-than-flattering moments, Rod Assia, executive producer of "Rich Girls," which debuts Tuesday, said he wanted to show that New York's upper-crust kids have the same concerns as most teenagers.
"These girls were coming of age, having to embark on taking ownership of their lives," he said of Tommy Hilfiger’s (search) daughter Ally and businessman Leo Gleicher's daughter Jamie, both of whom are featured in the show. "I remember being 18, and looking back I see I was being naïve about things."
Indeed the girls, while dropping thousands of dollars on clothes, grapple with issues of boys, sex and self-image.
"These are very common teen themes, they’re just set in Manhattan and are a little more fabulous," said Assia, who also produced Jessica Simpson's (search) "Newlyweds."
The popularity of these new shows is yet-to-be seen -- “Born Rich" airs Monday night and “Simple Life" starts Dec. 2 -- but judging from the popularity of other programs that look into the lives of the rich and famous, the new crop of rich kid vehicles will likely draw viewers.
Matt Kozlowski, a 32-year-old financial adviser from Houston, said he plans to tune in to satisfy his curiosity – and for the prospect of seeing wealthy people look silly.
“When you watch ‘Cribs’ on MTV, it’s focused on the houses and the cars and you think, ‘I’d like to have that,” said Kozlowski. “But when they focus on the rich people being clueless, it switches from jealousy to enjoying watching these people, who have no idea how normal life is lived, making fools of themselves.”
And according to New York magazine film reviewer John Lenoard, “Born Rich” will fulfill those fantasies.
“I look at these kids and say, ‘It isn’t their fault they have money and it isn’t their fault they don’t know what to do with their lives,' but they are the least introspective group of people I’ve seen on TV in years,” he said. “They make the cast of ‘Friends’ look like philosophers.”
In the opening scenes of "Rich Girls," Hilfiger and Gleicher get to the heart of the shows saying, “Just because we’re rich doesn’t make us bad people." And they aren’t, but neither are they as down to earth as they imagine.
During a moment of reflection, Gleicher says she doesn’t understand why people have to pay for clothes since clothes are a necessity, and later, at a party earnestly says: “My friends are so gifted. All these people in here are probably the most gifted people in the world.”
Although most people can’t imagine what it’s like to be so privileged, watching the rich kids stick their foot in their mouth is part of the appeal of the shows.
“You feel a lot better after watching it because you see they seem so clueless,” said Thompson.
The idea of having seemingly endless money is still a fantasy most viewers will cling to, but these shows effectively make being like these rich people less appealing, said Kozlowski.
“It’s fun watching people do something you would want to do like spend money and go on vacation, but I wouldn’t aspire to be like the Hilton sisters.”