Untold lifestyles of ultra wealthy

The Baltimore Sun

Here's some news guaranteed to make your blood boil if you are among the millions of hard-working Americans who feel like they are in an economic free fall: There is a new class of super rich in America that has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 20 years. And, by the way, its members are getting richer than ever today, even as your standard of living sinks.

Untold Wealth: The Rise of the Super Rich, a CNBC documentary premiering at 10 tonight, reports this trend, with correspondent David Faber interviewing economists, historians, a psychiatrist and several of the super rich who try to explain the hows and whys of this societal shift.

For some viewers, Faber's visits to the homes of the wealthy will be enough to warrant an hour with CNBC tonight. One of the first captains of industry whom viewers meet is 45-year-old Tim Durham, who specializes in leveraged buyouts of faltering companies. Durham shows off some of his 70 cars, including a $1.8 million Bugati. It cost him $22,000 just to have the tire repaired after it was punctured by a nail, Durham says.

That's the kind of wealth, spending and luxury Faber is talking about.

The report springs from the fact that in 1985, there were 13 billionaires in the United States, according to the government census figures. Today, there are more than 1,000.

Couple that group with what CNBC describes as "hundreds of thousands of newly minted multimillionaires," and you have the making of what Faber calls a "species unto themselves."

With 1 percent of the richest Americans controlling more wealth than 90 percent of the population, some analysts have used the term "New Gilded Age" to describe the unprecedented concentration of wealth at the very upper reaches of American society. But the producers and Faber do their own reporting, buttressing their documentary with experts like historian Ron Chernow, a National Book Award winner, who has chronicled the Warburg and Morgan banking families.

"We've never seen such an explosion - a veritable carnival - of wealth being created in the United States," Chernow says in the film. "And along with that, we see the very same kind of excess and conspicuous consumption as in the late 19th century."

CNBC also does good work in gaining access to the world of the super rich, particularly the newcomers who reside among the 49,000 households with net worth between $50 million and $500 million. (Another 125,000 households have a net worth between $25 million and $50 million, according to figures from the Federal Reserve.)

Not surprisingly, a lot of the newcomers made their fortunes before age 40 working with hedge funds and the buying and selling of mortgages on Wall Street. Hard workers all, they talk mainly about making money as a form of "keeping score" and competition. If they have any wisdom to share - beyond showing the upside of being driven - they are smart enough not to give it away for free on basic cable.

There is, nevertheless, insight to be gleaned both in seeing the way they spend their money (buying houses they never visit) and their dependence on designer labels for validation of their taste. And, then, there are the looks inside their homes that the cameras offer throughout.

But, boy, is there a major omission in this documentary. The report totally ignores the rise of tax laws favorable to the super rich - starting with the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and escalating with the efforts of President Bush during the past seven years. I mean, there is not a whisper in this report of the role favorable legislation played in driving this phenomenon of the past 25 years.

"We considered a look at how tax breaks have impacted the rich, but chose not to go down the road of a tax policy debate," Mitch Weitzner, executive producer of the program, said in an e-mail response to The Sun yesterday.

"The focus of the documentary was to examine the motivation of the super rich in obtaining wealth and to get an inside look at how they spend it and how they keep score. Given that the tax policy debate is discussed daily on CNBC, we thought an in-depth look at how society's celebration of the uber wealthy puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on the 'average' millionaire was an interesting topic to explore."

Interesting, yes. But also woefully incomplete for a program that calls itself a documentary.



Untold Wealth: the Rise of the Super Rich airs at 10 tonight on CNBC.

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