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Rich Kid Syndrome

America’s burgeoning money culture is producing a record number of heirs—but handing down values is harder than handing down wealth.

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Photographs by Julie Blackman/Courtesy of Edelman Gallery  

As an elementary-school kid in suburban New Jersey, Jordan Roth says he didn’t quite grasp the dizzying extent of his family’s wealth, though he got a tart first clue as a 6-year-old, when a classmate opened his birthday gift and proclaimed, “Humph. I thought I’d get a bigger present from you.” His family had a live-in housekeeper, but that wasn’t especially unusual in Ridgewood; more unusual was the family driver, but because Roth started attending Horace Mann at age 10, he was less self-conscious about this amenity than he might have been, as a fair number of the students got dropped off each day by someone, rather than taking a bus. It wasn’t until he was a teenager and moved to a marquee address on Park Avenue that larger disparities began to reveal themselves. His father, for example, had a private jet. “During the holidays, people would ask things like, ‘What flight are you on?’” says Roth. “How do you answer that?”

Jordan Roth’s father is Steven Roth, the CEO of Vornado Realty Trust, who is estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.6 billion, making him the 618th-richest person in the world. His mother, Daryl Roth, has produced five Pulitzer Prize–winning plays and has a theater downtown that bears her name. I contacted him because he seemed, by all accounts, as if he’d be thoughtful about the complications of inherited wealth. He’s 32; he has a serious job as vice-president of Jujamcyn Theaters.

Discussing money is considered vulgar—it’s a taboo worse than sex, something Sigmund Freud famously decided was a metaphorical stand-in for feces (repellent, hoarded, tightly controlled). And inherited wealth was a topic even Freud couldn’t handle without conflict, apparently—according to the late economist Peter Drucker, the doctor was ashamed of his family’s bourgeois roots and instead promoted the myth that he grew up in penury. Recently, I phoned Andrew Solomon, heir to a substantial pharmaceutical fortune and author of the beautiful depression memoir The Noonday Demon, and asked if he’d discuss the psychological effects of inherited wealth. In the most gracious way, he declined. I pointed out that in his book, he was willing to talk about a depression so profound he attempted to contract HIV in order to have a reason to kill himself; yet he was too shy, on the phone, to talk about his inheritance. Why was that?

He thought a moment before replying. “Because I think talking about money causes people not to take you seriously when talking about other things,” he said.

Roth was willing to talk about his money. But even he had his limits. He tells me, for instance, that he had his first “crisis of wealth” when he graduated from Princeton and found himself installed in a beautiful two-bedroom apartment in the West Village that his mother had picked out for him—and helped him furnish. He wasn’t working at the time. Yet he was luxuriating in its splendor. “It’s very clear, if you don’t want it,” he says. He’s handsome, buzz-cut, as long and lean as a baseball bat; when he speaks, he’s unhurried and looks you right in the eye. “It’s less clear if you do want it but don’t like what that necessarily means.”

Right, I say. We sit in silence for a moment.

So how much was the rent on a nice two-bedroom apartment in the West Village in 1997, anyway?

He smiles. “I’m totally not telling you.”


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