17 July 2008

Richistan (Robert Frank)

'A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich'

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a book so unexpectedly… Not that I didn’t expect much from it, you understand, but this little volume sat next to my bed every night for a week, causing me – despite being a confirmed narcoleptic – to stay up ‘n read.

Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich introduces us to the inhabitants of Richistan – a fictional breakaway republic peopled entirely by the super-rich.

Not the slightly-rich. Not the moderately rich. The obscenely, hideously, nauseatingly rich, rendered sleepless by troubles like, ‘My yacht doesn’t fit into the marina’, ‘It’s hard to manage 105 staff members’, and ‘How to out-donate the dot.com tycoon next door.’

Please note: this is not a book on how ‘the other half’ lives. It’s a book on the lifestyles of the 0.001% who make up America’s progressive new rich – and how they’re actually getting richer every year. It’s delicious stuff!

Richistan’s author, Robert Frank, is a senior special writer at The Wall Street Journal. In the process of creating his multi-carat republic, Frank inveigled his way into centuries-old charity balls, mammoth private estates, yacht clubs, fancy boardrooms, butler academies and other havens, where he recognised, observed and then elicited the ins and outs from the brave billionaires who’ve been both on top and down ‘n out.

Here’s a taste:

The rich have now created their own economy for their needs, at a time when the average worker's wage rises will merely match inflation and where 36 million people live below the poverty line. In Richistan sums of money are rendered almost meaningless because of their size. It also has other names. There is the 'Platinum Triangle' used to describe the slice of Beverly Hills where many houses go for above $10m. Then there is the Jewel Coast, used to describe the strip of Madison Avenue in Manhattan where boutique jewellery stories have sprung up to cater for the new riches' needs. Or it exists in the MetCircle society, a Manhattan club open only to those whose net worth is at least $100m.

It’s been said that “All good journalism is really travel writing. You prepare for a serious story the way a foreign correspondent would. You buy the maps, you learn the language, you hang out with the locals — not just the taxi drivers! — and then you write.” Gotta agree with that. Robert Frank’s is like the finest travel writing: packed with colourful and interesting stories, peppered with crazy people and rich in insights into an alien locale.


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