Interview with Jamie Johnson
This movie, in some ways, seems like an extension of some of the ideas you explored in your first film, 'Born Rich.'
It was an extension of 'Born Rich' and also, at the time, when I started the film, there were a number of changes in the economy: George Bush was undoing cutting taxes that Bill Clinton had put in place, even though the economy was doing quite well. And there were a number of people writing about this growing wealth gap, this sense of Two Americas.
I had seen firsthand, through my own personal experience with my family and the people immediately around me that were from other affluent families that their wealth was increasing at a huge rate, and much faster than the rest of the country. And I thought, you gotta absolutely explore this in a documentary film.
And in doing that you become a pariah of sorts by asking questions you weren't supposed to ask, which is usually the moments in the film when the conversation dies.
Yeah, that's a great way of saying it because that often does happen. I think talking about inequality in this country is so uncomfortable for people that when you bring up the subject, they often can't engage with it in any way at all and they don't want to-especially people who are vastly rich, because they have these mixed feelings about privilege and their position.
And bringing the topic up, talking about wealth, talking about inequality forces them to engage with those feelings of uncertainty they have. And they would prefer to reject the conversation. They would prefer to kill it. And that's really what I'm trying to do with this film, is ensure that the conversation isn't killed.
And rather than trying to find solutions, which so far no one really has, my mission has been to keep putting the questions to people in hopes that maybe there will be some gradual resolution of the problem. It was very important to me while making this film to try and reach out to those iconic figures in this debate, in order for it to be a film of significance and really contribute to the discussion of inequality and this discussion of the growing wealth gap in economics in America.
The cab driver is a wonderful exception among all these wealthy individuals. How did he end up in the film?
Well, Jimmy, who is the character that you see in the taxi cab, he is one of those people that you run into while you're making a documentary film and you start a conversation and then, all of a sudden, that conversation turns into a conversation with a camera and then, all of a sudden, it turns into an interview and you get this great content for the film where you didn't necessarily expect to. They're part of the pleasant surprises while on the journey of making a documentary, and often they're the richest moments in the film.
One of the more interesting issues the film explores is whether or not the wealthiest in society have a responsibility to help out those who are less privileged. What are your thoughts on the subject?
I think it certainly is the responsibility of the rich to support and regenerate society. And I also think it's the responsibility of our government to provide basic infrastructure and social support for many people who need it. We can afford it as a country and I think it's something that is beneficial to everyone at the top, and everyone at the bottom- meaning, I think there needs to be a basic level of health care, a basic level of education. I think you need these institutional systems of social support, and I think it's the government's responsibility to provide that.
Now someone like Milton Friedman fundamentally disagrees with that, and that's an age old debate. But right now, the rich are capturing too many of the rewards of the economy at the expense of everybody else.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
Well, I hope they'll get to see something that they normally wouldn't get to see, which is a window into this world of great wealth, and hear the opinions of these vastly rich people about how the economy is structured and what it's doing to the wealth gap-whether it's decreasing it or increasing it, whether it's contributing to the problem or resolving the problem. I think rarely do you get to hear candid statements from the vastly rich about inequality and about how they feel about it.
I know people socially who live in countries where the wealth gap is more extreme than it is in America and they live with full-time security. They live with the threat of getting kidnapped, or they live with the threat of people invading their homes. I can't imagine why anyone would want to increase the level of inequality in this country to the extent where we had that kind of internal conflict between social classes. Is it possible? According to the experts in my film, yes, it is possible that America could reach that level of inequality where we have internal conflict that could even be armed conflict. It's a frightening thought, but I think it's a very real possibility.
I hope that the message of this film reaches people that are vastly rich and that they realize there is a sense of responsibility that they need to have to the greater society. They can't just keep capturing more and more wealth and distancing themselves from the majority of Americans.