Money: What Do Rich People Do When They No Longer Have It?

06/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Having grown up in Houston, surrounded by the oil business, and the kinds of personalities which create both wildcatters and Baptist ministers, I guess I feel I know a thing or two about hyperbole. But what happens when those who struck gold, be it black gold, or fees on deals during the days of easy money, bet the bank and lose? Big egos and narcissism go hand in hand with enormous bank accounts which seem to deflate quickly when times get rough. I can recall the days when oil prices dropped, people went bankrupt, committed suicide, and divorces scattered the lawns of many a high-end suburban neighborhood. It was not pretty. The neighborhood bars were full of dads going down, stressed out beyond belief. Without all that money and newly leased Mercedes, the private schools and the golf club, people did not know how to define themselves anymore ... unless, that is, they were actually real people inside them to begin with ...

Money can serve as a distraction from real life, real problems, bad marriages and, well, almost anything. When they make money, men you would not have looked twice at in high school, begin attracting good-looking women like flies. McMansions sprout up everywhere from Greenwich to Bel-Air, and interior decorators and art dealers start salivating. Money also pays for permanent companionship in an "empty" lifestyle ... for example, here is the list of the people who came by one upscale Southern California residence in any given day:

1. The trainer (nice guy. no wonder so many women in these area codes end up having affairs with their trainers).
2. The dog washer who showed up with a dog washing and blow drying camper van and parked it in the driveway twice a week.
3. The maid ... it is difficult, (and frankly absurd) to explain to an immigrant from El Salvador that a big house and a lot of money do not a happy family make.
4. The pool guy ... who has moved with the owner of the McMansion as he or she upgraded ... most likely one of the wealthy person's most enduring relationships.
5. The three (four?) gardeners, whom the dog barks at, and who always show up on Mondays and Fridays exactly at the moment the wealthy person decides to finally try to enjoy his or her privacy and wants to be naked and calm by the pool. They pour hormone disrupting chemicals which harm children and the dog all over the lawn. But hey, they are just doing their job.
6. The guy who installs the phones and security cameras and screening room and little TV box things with touch screens, along with a couple other guys who were sort of always around ... no one in the household can ever make any of this stuff actually work. These guys inevitably leave the tiny kitchen TV permanently programmed to show the Playboy Channel.
7. One or two FedEx guys. Delivering packages of bubble wrapped stuff.
8. The super-tanned Sparkletts water delivery guy. Nice legs.
9. One or two interior designer guys, whenever they weren't out of town working on a mansion in Shreveport. They will try to sell you an $800 "antique" pot for plants which I could have bought in Rome for thirty bucks.
10. Two guys from a company in the Valley, to deliver curtains, except they curtains do not belong to the never home wealthy person's house but to the never home wealthy person's house next door. This reminds me of the people who were away at work the day an entirely new child's room as installed in their home in Bel Air. Except it was for the wrong house and they didn't have any kids, just dogs they treated like children.

One guy, who left early every morning to drive down the hill to his office in Beverly Hills, noticed that there was always a line-up of pick-ups trucks waiting to enter through his gate in the morning. He, the ultimate gatekeeper, was allowing twenty or more people he did not know to spend the entire day with his wife and family while he worked to keep the whole machine running. In the evening, as he drove back up the hill, he would have to wait for all the trucks to exit his property. He finally realized that while he was down at a sterile office all day working to make money to pay for his house,and the lifestyle, these guys were up at his house, enjoying the view. Is something wrong with this picture?

But then again, rich people help the economy and create an awful lot of jobs ... the upkeep of their homes, their bodies, their children and their dogs makes for a multi-level structure of facilitating a hollow life. And the wealthy ones who maintain this lifestyle, and do not remember what really matters (and there are some who do manage to balance it all ... but they are few and far between ... ) are the ones who lose out, as do their children. The nannies spend more time raising their kids than they do, their houses do not feel like "homes", but rather real estate investments, and their perfect bodies, perfect lawns and perfect lifestyles are killing them.

When rich people who have lived this kind of lifestyle (note that Warren Buffett still lives in the same house he purchased in 1958 and is married to the same wife, and Bill Gates did not make Melinda sign a pre-nup ... maybe he actually trusts her) and then lose it ... a lot of people begin to disappear. The lease on the Mercedes is not renewed. The bills from the school and the interior decorators and the Spakletts guy begin to pile up. The answering machine is no longer full of alluring voices offering things but the accountant trying to locate the once wealthy human being who is no longer wealthy and perhaps no longer human.

What is the moral of this story? To some it may be to simply never allow this to happen, to make sure that wealth does not dwindle. But some things are beyond our control, and when the economy shifts, and the bubbles burst, so do many an inflated ego ... those who figured it out long ago, or perhaps will figure it out this time, before it is too late, will take a deep breath, look around at those who actually do love them, and say, "Hey, maybe it is time to get a life." A real one that is.