You may think of Ivanka Trump as a businesswoman, wife, mother, and henchwoman. Thirteen years ago, however, she was just a marginally-less-famous sometimes-model who agreed to participate in a documentary on what it’s like to be a ridiculously wealthy young American. That film, Born Rich, provides an uncanny glimpse into the early life of the country’s future “first lady.”
Born Rich was directed by Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune who spent several years pointing a camera at his millionaire peers and getting them to muse about what it’s like to live with inherited wealth. The other young people on camera veer between unseemly bragging—“I can just say, ‘fuck you, I’m from New York. My family can buy your family, piss off’ ”—and even more unseemly bellyaching. At first glance, Ivanka’s appearance is disappointingly upbeat and on-message in comparison. She gives a serene tour of her childhood bedroom, and tells an endearing story, well worn by now, about preferring Erector Sets to baby dolls. “I’m absolutely proud to be a Trump, and I’m proud of my family name and proud of everything they’ve done and ever accomplished,” she says, tidily covering her bases. As an old college friend told a reporter last year, “She doesn’t complain about anything, and she rarely expresses weakness.” That seems to be the Ivanka on display in Born Rich.
But despite the loyal daughter’s best intentions, some of her interviews are revealing. She tells a story—which may also feel familiar at this point—about walking down Fifth Avenue with her father around the time of his divorce from her mother, when Ivanka was 9 or 10 years old. They saw a homeless man sitting outside Trump Tower. “I remember my father pointing to him and saying ‘You know, that guy has 8 billion dollars more than me,’ because he was in such extreme debt at that point,” she recalls. “It makes me all the more proud of my parents, that they got through that.” It’s remarkable that Trump père was so frank with his very young daughter about his financial problems; it’s clear that he has always trusted her. Even a decade later, however, it does not seem to occur to Ivanka that her father was not actually poorer than the homeless man sitting outside the building with her last name on it. Instead, she frames the story as a revelation, using it as a canny opportunity to reflect on her father’s strength, resilience, and insight.
At another point in Born Rich, she mentions a more recent incident backstage at a modeling job in Australia. A strange man came up to her and asked her, “What does does it feel like to be wealthy?” and “What does it feel like to never have felt any pain?” “That really upset me,” Ivanka says. Aha, a moment of weakness, a glimpse of humanity! But wait: “Not because I was upset for myself,” she continues, “but because I was upset for him. I was bothered by the fact that he could be so ignorant. And like that there are people out there who could say such a blanketed thing and just be so downright stupid and not sure the brain that they have. That’s what bothered me. Not the fact that anything he said really wounded me deep down, just the fact that there are really people out there who think like that. To think that with money comes happiness.” In other words: When a stranger aggressively badgered me about not feeling any pain, I was upset because he was so stupid, but I want to be very clear that I did not feel pain. Notice, too, how over the course of just a few sentences, she shifts with Trumpian aplomb from condescension (“upset for him”) to disdain (“so downright stupid”) to boasting (“not the fact that anything he said really wounded me”).
Born Rich, which originally aired on HBO, is not a good movie. The camera angles are weird, the lighting inconsistent, and the theme never moves beyond “Having money sure is complicated.” Johnson clearly felt called to the subject by some spark of self-awareness, but the spark isn’t bright enough to provide much illumination. In one scene, his voice-over declares that his father nobly declined to “go on permanent vacation,” over shots of his dad daubing oil paint onto a large canvas in a two-story home art studio. Johnson’s deadpan screen presence is uncannily similar to the comedian Nathan Fielder on the impeccable reality-show satire Nathan for You, only Johnson isn’t kidding at all.
As off-key as Born Rich may be as a piece of cinema, however, it’s worth watching for the candor the young director elicits from his peers. In one scene, the heir to a European textile fortune compares his tailored suit’s “aristocratic” high lapels to the way Bill Clinton wears his low, “like a restaurant owner, it’s so vulgar.” Later, Johnson prods an heir to the A&P supermarket chain to speculate on what she would do if she had all that cash on hand: “Give it all to the homeless—no, I’m kidding!” she answers, shrieking with laughter. “Let’s see, I’d just have a few houses, in like the Bahamas and London. And animals, and a plane. A big art studio, things like that.” Even in her early 20s, Ivanka Trump was smart enough not to deliver up a moment like that for posterity.