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The One Percent

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There may be widespread fears of an impending recession running through the minds of most Americans, but there aren't among the country's richest citizens. Contrary to common assumption, many of the wealthiest Americans aren't worried about the weakening economy at all, they are actually excited about it.

To them, the crisis in the housing market, the recent slide in stock prices, and the general loss in purchasing power for millions of Americans have resulted in the thinning of the aristocratic ranks, or in other words, have decreased demand for the highest level of luxury living. Ironically, for the mega-rich, recession brings with it the ability to live well at a lower cost and with less of a hassle.

For the past eight years, I have been chronicling in documentary films the lives of the vastly rich and the role they play in the economy. As a member of the family that founded the Johnson and Johnson pharmaceutical company, I have been given unprecedented access to Whitneys, Vanderbilts, Forbeses, Gateses, Buffetts and Bloombergs. I have seen firsthand how many of these families run their businesses and I have watched them react to sudden shifts in the market and changing economic conditions. And now, with the threat of a recession looming on the horizon, I hear many of them saying-" Thank God, it's about time."

Paul Orfalea, for example, who is the founder of the Kinkos copy centers and a subject in my current film, The One Percent, used to like to tell me about a jet he owned called a Challenger. According to Paul it was the perfect plane for him, but he never got to use it because every time he tried to make arrangements to travel, he was told that the plane was actually chartered out to someone else. Originally Paul intended to make the plane available for charter only on occasion to help cover annual maintenance expenses, but he soon realized that there was so much demand for the plane and it was booked so far in advance that he was rarely able to fly in it himself. When I asked Paul what he thought the reason was behind the demand for his plane, he only had one culprit to blame -- the surging economy.

Another subject I recently interviewed blamed what he called mere "centa-millionaires" for the breakdown in exclusivity of his elitist world. For him, the overnight stars of the seven-year bull market not only overcrowded private air travel, but also drove up the price of high-end real estate. Buying a third home in the Hamptons became a burdensome experience for him. As far as he was concerned, there was just too much urgent demand, and although he could easily afford the asking prices, he found the heightened numbers personally offensive. He did assure me at the end of our conversation, however, that as soon as he sees the recession start to hit people, he'll be the first to buy.

While working on films about the vastly rich, I have seen countless displays of excessive privilege that serve as markers for the staggering inequality that plagues our country. Often times I have imagined that after recording scenes of wealthy prep-school students saying to less fortunate classmates, "Fuck you, I'm from New York. I could buy your family, piss off" that it couldn't get any worse. I believed that the distinction between The Two Americas that people commonly speak of was as pronounced as it could ever be.

But in recent days, watching the super-rich exuberantly anticipate a recession has forced me to realize that I was wrong to assume that the indicators of inequality wouldn't become more conspicuous. It appears that the opposite is true, that under the threat of hard times the mega-wealthy aren't feeling a greater responsibility to reflect upon the problems surrounding the growing wealth gap; they are, in fact, trying to fatten their wallets and further insulate their lifestyles.

I had hoped that foreboding economic circumstances would have caused the ultra-rich to think not just of themselves and increasing their own personal affluence. Unfortunately, however, too many of them lack concern and without this concern, the divisive imbalance will only worsen with recession.