Well the first thing you know ol Jed’s a millionaire,
Kinfolk said “Jed move away from there”
Said “Californy is the place you ought to be”
So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly
Hills, that is. Swimmin pools, movie stars. Rich Kids.
The E! Network’s Rich Kids of Beverly Hills takes a stroll through the day-to-day minutiae of seven young adults who are the progeny of some of the rich and/or famous of Beverly Hills.
The show gives a kaleidoscopic view of 21st century affluence, depicting lifestyles that seem to inevitably crystalize into chlorine-soaked champagne flutes. Flaunt caught up with three of these privileged individuals—Dorothy Wang, EJ Johnson, and Morgan Stewart.
All are Rich Kids of exceptional opportunity. Wang is the daughter of a billionaire Chinese retail tycoon, Johnson is the son of the Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson, and Stewart is the daughter of a Beverly Hills architect who owns a construction firm.
The Rich Kids of Beverly Hills seems in many ways to be a product distinct to the times—a reality television show, born from Wang’s Instagram, and awash with selfies, superyachts, private jets, and hashtags of aspirational opulence—#cocochanel #fabuluxe—but there are precedents that launch the narrative much more directly along a historical trajectory of class and wealth. The nature and shape of aristocracy has changed, but the fundamental geometry—the pyramid—remains more or less the same.
Exceptional wealth has bred distinctly recognizable personality archetypes for centuries. Royalty, aristocracy, the well-to-do, toffs, dandies. Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1859: “[D]andyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.”
All of the Rich Kids I spoke to were quite sincere, and did not—at least over the phone—project an air of “aristocratic superiority,” but their love of clothes and material elegance is evident. Discussing fashion, Johnson—a notable fashionista—tells me: “I definitely would love to have a [clothing] line at some point…and then also probably accessories and maybe even something in cosmetics.”
Growing up in the extraordinarily in-your-face affluence of Beverly Hills, Wang at least was largely unaware of the volume of her privilege: “I always knew that we didn’t have any financial problems. I knew we were well off, I knew that for school I didn’t have to apply for any loans or anything like that—I knew that we had money but we don’t talk about how much.”
Remarkably, she claims to have not realized that her father was a billionaire until she was 18 or 19 years old, when she saw his name on a rich-list in Forbes magazine.
The fame of Johnson’s father made it a lot more difficult for him to be ignorant of his unique circumstance: “there wasn’t really one major moment, I just kind of came into the realization that most other people didn’t live the way that I lived,” he told me.
The character of wealth is different in Beverly Hills. In the spirit of CALIFUK, it’s worth noting the contrast to the British equivalent. While there’s certainly still the cloistered old money in the Hills, it’s distinguishable from the timber-polish, aristocratic flavor so distinct to Mayfair, Park Lane, and the other bastions of extraordinary privilege in London. Old world, new world, old money, new money, or as Charles Dickens snidely put it in Great Expectations: “no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself.”
Cruising down Rodeo Drive, it’s easy to get the sense that you’re in a place of permanent holiday, where sunshine is the new shade, and Rolls Royce is the new Toyota. While more than 56% of Americans have gone the last 12 months without a vacation, the Rich Kids are not similarly restrained. My conversation with Stewart was cut short due to the poor onboard reception from a yacht in Saint-Tropez: “I’m actually literally in the Mediterranean Sea, in the south of France,” she told me, “the boat keeps wobbling back and forth, so if I cut out, that’s why.”
Wang sounds honestly regretful when she explains to me that the occupation for which she has become best know—being “funemployed”—was never intended to imply that being unemployed was fun: “I want to shoot myself…because it kind of gave off the wrong impression. Funemployed just means enjoying what you do, being passionate about it—having a TV show, being able to put out a product line, being able to engage with fans.”
It’s hard to forget the extraordinary moment following the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 when former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan—one of the chief architects of the current neo-liberal financial system—conceded: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”
Greenspan oversaw a period of economic expansion that resulted in unprecedented concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands. In the age before Greenspan in the 1970s—the top 1% controlled less than 10% of the combined wealth. Since Greenspan’s resignation, from 2009 to 2014, the top 1% of the global rich increased their total share of the world’s wealth from 44% to 48%, and next year their combined capital will exceed that of the remaining 99%. As Mel Brooks put it, “It’s good to be the king.”
What has driven the disparity? While there are numerous factors, an interesting point is that the 500th ranked corporation in 1960 was an eighth of the size of the 500th-ranked corporation in 2010. If a talented executive can improve the profitability of a company by five percent more than a less gifted executive, then the value of that executive to the company balloons disproportionately. The margins for merit are in some ways larger than they’ve ever been before. The Rich Kids are products of economic coincidence, just like the rest of us.
Wealth and circumstance have been explored by the French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 2013 polemic Capital in the 21st Century, has been lauded as the most important book of economics this century. His arguments about equity stem from a mathematical inequality between capital and labor. Put crudely, the value of labor (hard work) is worth less than the value of capital (investments and inheritance), and that disparity is increasing, and will continue to increase under the current system unless it is checked by radical forms of wealth taxation.
None of the Rich Kids I asked had read Piketty, but Wang had an interesting engagement with the themes, and clearly has a dexterous understanding of the issues, and particularly inheritance tax.
“It is something that would benefit a lot of people,” she acknowledges, “but at the same time then a lot of people might be taking their money out of the country, which is already what’s happening—especially for inheritance—they’re giving up their U.S. citizenship and living in other places with offshore accounts.
“I think that maybe as a country we should teach people who have money to give back, and ways to give back, and basically not hoard all the money that you’ve made for yourself.”
The idea of altruism featured from the first episode of their show, with Wang and Stewart spearheading a blood drive. While the juxtaposition to the rolling footage of their respective Birkin and Louboutin collections was jarring—perhaps deliberately so given the nature of the show—their efforts were genuine. These are unusually well travelled people, and the wider world has a habit of elciting sympathy and appreciation for the lives of strangers.
“We’ve never not gone somewhere because it wasn’t nice,” Wang told me, “so even though I grew up a certain way. I had exposure to a lot of different neighborhoods, and a lot of different lifestyles. I think my love of food and just trying different experiences, and knowing a lot about different cultures has made me not scared to go to different places and experience things outside of the Beverly Hills bubble.”
The Beverly Hills bubble. A place where dreams inflate and deflate, and float through the air with transparent optimism, and just a hint of a fabulous rainbow sheen.
Y’all come back now, y’hear?
Photographer: Tony Kelly for copiousmanagement.com.
Stylist: Sara Paulsen for CelestineAgency.com.
Models: Chanique, Claire Grace, Jerica Lamens, Kylee Poling, and Kara Del Toro for EliteModel.com, Los Angeles.
Hair: Dimitris Giannetos for OpusBeauty.com using L’Oreal Professionel.
Makeup: Allan Avendaño for OpusBeauty.com using Dior.
Manicure: Tracy Clemens for OpusBeauty.com using Chanel.