‘Untold Wealth’ is a story
told too many times before

          Posted Friday, March 20, 2009

David Faber's documentary on a handful of nouveau riche sort of defeats the first two words of his own title.

"Untold Wealth: The Rise of the Super Rich" really is not untold at all. We get fairly specific net worth amounts for a collection of upstarts, we learn that all or nearly all in the program came from middle class backgrounds, and we learn that they've got a lot of homes and cars.

The hook for this dubious June 2008 CNBC original programming effort, which continues to air, is that, according to census data, suddenly — oh my gosh — the ranks of the "super rich" are exploding like never before.

This is the same expanded "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" special that could've been done in the 1990s (and probably was and still can be) on Silicon Valley types, or in the 1980s on the Gordon Gekko-esque LBO practitioners.

Or it's the type of thing that can be done by demographic, as Lee Hawkins recently showed with his "Newbos" documentary.

The program notes "49,000 U.S. households now have between $50 million and $500 million in net worth."

And that matters to me ... how ...?

The scenes of opulent homes and private jets get boring fast; there's probably not even enough there (unlike in a Robin Leach production) that even an interior designer would want to see.

But Faber's production, to its credit, is at least mildly interesting — strictly when it tells us how these people got to the top.

He starts with Tim Durham, 45, an obvious business genius who kind of emerged out of nowhere from Indiana as an LBO king. Durham goes to England to bid on Rolls-Royces and owns luxury cars around the country ("right around 70, I lose count"), flies on a private jet (yawn) like Gordon Gekko not to waste time going commercial, and wallpapers his ceilings, something one can do on an "unlimited budget."

What's interesting about his story is that he was a math major from IU, not a finance ace from Wharton. He got a law degree and became an expert on identifying undervalued assets and companies (basically, the same skill as Warren Buffett, Jack Welch and a host of other titans). His big break was his first deal, borrowing money to finance a forging company, upgrading the plant, and coming out $15 million ahead. "Helps if your first deal works," he said.

Two other upstarts get significant air time, Anthony Scaramucci of Long Island and Glenn Stearns of California.

Scaramucci, 43 (review of Scaramucci's book Goodbye Gordon Gekko here), "grew up middle class," Faber reports, earning a law degree from Harvard and succeeding in the hedge fund business through "long hours (70-90 a week), hard work, and relentless drive."

Stearns failed fourth grade, fathered a child at 14, and somehow became a mortgage king. (One might wonder how Scaramucci and Stearns have done in the present market.) He's got a huge home in Newport Beach, Calif., new wife, and several kids, who Stearns says will see most of his money go to charities instead of their pockets.

In case you were wondering, according to Huffington Post, Durham gives to Republicans only (Bush and Giuliani), Scaramucci gave to Obama, and Stearns donated to McCain and Romney.

Faber does not show any non-whites, but other than that reaches across the demographic spectrum. Hal Steger, now of Funambol, is our guy in Silicon Valley, who's worth $3.5 million and shown as an example of how $3 million really doesn't go that far anymore. Steger "absolutely" worries about his financial security. (He's so worried, he doesn't make political donations, per HuffPost.) What Faber doesn't say is Steger graduated from Michigan with a double major in computer science and econ, and has a master's from Carnegie-Mellon's Tepper School, so it's safe to say this is an above-average-talented-educated member of the American workforce who is probably always going to do OK.

Laurel Touby is profiled as the founder of MediaBistro, which she was able to sell to Jupiter Media for $23 million, but even with $10 million "after taxes" cannot afford a really nice place in Manhattan with her husband and still climbs the steps to her Brooklyn apartment. (Noticeably, she was watching "Fast Money" during a segment in her living room.) She made a donation to Hillary Clinton.

Oscar Schafer is another New York hedge fund king (gave to both Romney and Obama) but older than Scaramucci and someone not just mildly, but extremely, concerned about the appearance of his wealth and how much he should give back. He and his wife, Didi, gave $5 million to the New York Philharmonic, and he's part of a group, Tiger 21, that assists wealthy types in making these kinds of decisions.

Faber feels compelled to throw around some real bigwigs, like Bill Gross, Lloyd Blankfein, Steve Schwarzman, apparently to offer the guise that he's got access to the really big fish too. But Schwarzman of course doesn't give this kind of interview (some stock footage of his birthday party outrage, oh boy) and neither does Blankfein on 15 Central Park West (Faber doesn't mention Denzel Washington and Jeff Gordon and Sting have bought there too, according to the WSJ). Gross gave Faber a token little tour of his Newport Beach second home. Gross, who strikes CNBCfix as a very gracious person, mentioned feeling fortunate and included his wife, Sue, in describing the "cornucopia" of goodness life has brought them.

A couple regular joes were interviewed to provide "context," those being biographer of the rich Ron Chernow, psychiatrist/psychologist Kerry J. Sulkowicz and Cornell prof Robert Frank. About as meaningful as they get are Chernow's point that the rich still have toys, only difference being private jets instead of private railcars, and Sulkowicz's notion that down-to-earth rich people are nicer than arrogant rich people.

"Welcome to the new gilded age?" Hardly. Faber's report is soft, repetitive and a bit tiresome. But it's of mild interest to the typical CNBC audience, has some decent stories, and is not the worst hour of cable television you'll see.

Other reviews of "Untold Wealth: The Rise of the Super Rich":

Newsday: "Like all pornography, wealth pornography starts to wear thin after a while, no matter how skillful or thoughtful the treatment"

N.Y. Daily News: "One strongly suspects most of the superrich don't really want to open up any part of their lives to a TV documentary. But Faber talks to enough"

N.Y. Post: "Especially interesting are some statistics that Faber tosses out"

Luxist: "For every person you see and think they are rich and have it all, there is probably someone they look at as being rich and think they really have it all"

"Untold Wealth: The Rise of the Super Rich"

Featuring Tim Durham, Ron Chernow, Anthony Scaramucci, Steve Schwarzman, Bill and Sue Gross, Oscar Schafer, Bill Fischer, Lloyd Blankfein, Dan Loeb, Omid Kordestani, Kerry Sulkowicz, Hal Steger, Robert Frank, Laurel Touby, Glenn Stearns, Michael Sonnenfeldt

Correspondent: David Faber
Producer: Lori Gordon
Editor: Patrick Ahearn
Executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Written by: David Faber
Written by: Lori Gordon
Coordinating producer: Lauren Kesner
Director of Photography: Angel Perez
Field camera: Joe DeWitt, Peter Fragoyannis, Alex Herrera, Bill Irmscher, Leroy Jackson, Steve Ligtelyn, Raul Marin, Marco Mastrorilli, Bill Simms, Mike Vaughn, Tim Walton
Jib operator: Michael I. Kirsic
Field audio: Dave Foerder, Dave Grogan, Izak Ben Meir, Dave Sampe, John Veit, Kathy Walton
Designer/animator: Michael Schwartz
Designer: Nick O'Connor
Creative director: Victoria Todis
Art director: Peter Krugman
Managing digital editor: Vito Tattoli
Archivist: Lawrence Beer
Vice president, long form programming: Josh Howard

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