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Interview With Jamie Johnson

Aired October 26, 2003 - 09:43   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My parents never sat me down and said, you're rich. I was 10 years old. It was in fourth grade. During a free reading people in the library, a kid in my class found my dad's name in a copy of "Forbes" magazine, with a list of the 400 richest people in America my name was found. The kid read the article aloud to the whole class. Everyone including my teacher ran over to check it all out for themselves. It was strange. All my friends and me finding out at the same time how rich my family was. I felt like I was learning a secret I wasn't supposed to know.


SEAN CALLEBS, CNN ANCHOR: I chipped my tooth in fourth grade and had trouble dealing with that. Imagine something like that. You probably won't believe this, but it's not always easy to inherit millions and millions of dollars at a young age. Our next guest should know. Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. He's made a documentary called "Born Rich."

I've heard a lot about this, Jamie. Thanks very much for coming on and talking to us about this today. The genesis for this actually came when you were 20, a student at NYU. How difficult was it going to these some of people I presume you knew, and saying, I want to talk about what it was like growing up knowing you were going to have tons of money?

JAMIE JOHNSON, DOCUMENTARY FILM DIRECTOR, "BORN RICH": It was extremely difficult. The search to find the people to participate in this film took about three years. I asked about 50 people who probably turned me down. I think people are really scared. They wanted to participate in this film but it's an age-old thing, it's an age-old concept that you're not supposed to talk about money. So it was difficult to find kids who were really willing to participate.

CALLEBS: Let's talk about that. As a kid, were you sat down and said look, don't talk about your wealth. Just act like it's not there. What was the conversation like?

JOHNSON: That's exactly what it was like. If it ever came up in conversation in my household, I was told to deny it, distance yourself from it. Don't tell anybody you are rich. It's not polite to talk about. It's an inappropriate subject.

CALLEBS: Jamie, want to go to a clip of your film. This is a conversation you had with your dad, and clearly he's uncomfortable with the whole idea.


JOHNSON: I don't want to be nervous about money or be nervous who I am. And I feel like you're nervous about this film, maybe that nervousness of who you are.

JOHNSON'S FATHER: You're in control of this film, and I'm not. So there's a little source of nervousness.


CALLEBS: Jamie, was there ever the point where somebody put the hand over the lens and said back off, no comment, I don't want to talk at this point?

JOHNSON: There were some heated moments, especially with my father. Getting him even to start to talk when -- in that scene there was really difficult. He's very, very anxious about this film. And has been in the past. And I think a lot of the kids who participated are nervous, too.

CALLEBS: Let's talk about some of the kids who are in this film. You have a daughter of Donald Trump, a daughter of the mayor of New York. Just talk about some of these people, what it was like approaching them. These are people that we will hear and read about.

JOHNSON: Well, Ivanca Trump is an interesting case. She one of the people who is actually very supportive of the film. I think when you get a chance to see this documentary you will realize. She's very sharp. She goes to Wharton, she gets straight As. And it was great to have her participate in the project. I think people will see that when they see the film.

CALLEBS: It's interesting; we had a tease a while ago. There was a talk with one kid who said, look, this is Grand Central, one day this is going to be yours. When I was a youngster, I had blocks, but mine were not 42nd, 43rd, 44th, things of that nature. What was it like having to do that?

JOHNSON: That's an interesting situation, where you have an heir to the Vanderbilt-Whitney fortune who was told that Grand Central Station was his at a young age. And he described how it really kind of freaked him out. What he ended up doing is actually taking some time off from school and going to work on an oilrig in southern Texas. He realized that hard work is what made him feel good. It was a way to center himself in life. Now that's what he does.

CALLEBS: How grounded are these people for the most part?

JOHNSON: It's always difficult to generalize. I think this film challenges some stereotypes about people who are born rich. And I think it confirms some stereotypes, as well. I think you see snobbery and you see entitlement. But at the same time you see thoughtful, caring individuals who were aware of privileges they have and are taking advantage of them. CALLEBS: Are you going to hear criticism? People will say look, am I supposed to feel sorry for you? You have hundreds of millions of dollars.

JOHNSON: I don't think the film asks for sympathy. I don't think anyone should feel sorry for anyone in this situation. When you are born rich, you have all these options, you can pursue a career path that you find interesting, there's no need or pressure to start working to get funds just for survival, which is something a lot of people have to struggle with. So I think it's important to remember that people born rich need to take advantage of opportunities, they need to go out there and do something apart from the family's wealth.

CALLEBS: OK. Jamie Johnson, thanks very much. The film is called "Born Rich." It airs on HBO Monday night at 10:00 p.m. It's already opened in Sundance, as I understand it, to rave reviews. You are obviously a very smart, very well spoken young guy. Best of luck to you, and I'm looking forward to seeing this Monday night.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me.


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