Johnson & Johnson Heir Makes Film on Income Gap Jamie Johnson, whose family founded Johnson & Johnson, came from a world with an inviolable rule: Don't talk about money. But he's using his background to make documentaries about the rich, including The One Percent.
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Johnson & Johnson Heir Makes Film on Income Gap

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Johnson & Johnson Heir Makes Film on Income Gap

Johnson & Johnson Heir Makes Film on Income Gap

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On Fridays we talk about your money. Today we talk about your money if you're in the same class of Americans as Jamie Johnson. His family founded the giant corporation, Johnson & Johnson. He grew up amid money and privilege. Now he uses his insider status to make documentaries that are critical of the rich. Johnson's latest is called "The One Percent." It's airing on Cinemax this month. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI: In the world where Jamie Johnson grew up there was an inviolable rule: you never discussed money.

Mr. JAMIE JOHNSON (Filmmaker, "The One Percent"): I remember bringing it up with my family and I remember my father saying, Jamie, why are you talking to me about this? If anyone asks you about it, tell them you're not related to the family that started Johnson & Johnson.

ZARROLI: Really? Why do you think he said that?

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, you see wealthy people across the board being reluctant to talk about wealth often, particularly in these old money, WASP-y American families. It's even more of a taboo subject.

ZARROLI: A taboo that Johnson at least isn't afraid to violate. His first documentary was about the children of the rich. His latest is about the growing concentration of wealth among families like his own.

Mr. JOHNSON: Our family's fortune is growing faster than ever. We're a part of a small number of American families that own most of the country's wealth. But having so much in the hands of so few can't be good for America.

ZARROLI: Johnson describes a world where the super-rich attend conferences to learn ways to avoid inheritance taxes; where sugar barons can buy access to presidents. The film has its obvious side: Johnson likes to juxtapose scenes of deprivation — like New Orleans after Katrina — with glimpses of country clubs and mansions. He interviews commentators like Ralph Nader, Kevin Phillips and Robert Reich all making familiar points. But Johnson has a youthful passion for his subject.

In one scene the lanky, earnest 26-year-old spars with the late economist Milton Friedman, then 88.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The One Percent")

Mr. MILTON FRIEDMAN (Economist): When our society collapses, it will not be for the reasons you say. It will be because our government has grown too big, because we have not held government down to size.

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm nervous that because we're not asking the right questions, because we're not willing to curtail our rapid growth…

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I think it's time for you to get out of here.

Mr. JOHNSON: We're at the stage now where the gap between the rich and poor is…

Mr. FRIEDMAN: You've exhausted my patience.

Mr. JOHNSON: I have?

ZARROLI: "The One Percent" is also a family drama — part Eugene O'Neill and part Michael Moore. Johnson follows his own father around trying to interview him. He wears a hidden microphone and sneaks into a private club in Florida that requires members to wear white on the croquet court. At one point a family financial adviser tells him off.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The One Percent")

Unidentified Man (Financial Adviser): You say, okay, fine. I'll go do my homework and you don't.

Mr. JOHNSON: I don't need it. It's a pain in the ass.

Unidentified Man: You're behaving like a little arrogant trustofarian(ph).

ZARROLI: One of the interesting things in the documentary is that you sort of pursue your father at various points. What did you want him to talk to you about?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I felt that in some way he recognized that there was value in my making "The One Percent." And to try to deny the money that you have and trying to, you know, deny the fact that you live an affluent lifestyle really is nonsensical and completely irrational. And I was hoping to get him to communicate that.

ZARROLI: In the course of the movie, Johnson learns his father once financed a documentary about apartheid. His father reluctantly agrees to talk about it. He says after the film aired on public TV he was chewed out by Johnson & Johnson's CEO. It seemed the company did business in South Africa. Then he clams up again.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The One Percent")

Mr. JOHNSON Sr. (Jamie Johnson's father): I can't give you solutions for the world.

ZARROLI: Johnson says his relationship with his father is strained because of the film and old friends have disapproved of the way he takes a battering-ram into the world where he grew up. But Johnson says the refusal of the rich to talk about their privileges is one reason acknowledging the wealth gap has been so hard.

Mr. JOHNSON: Certainly without raising these questions and without forcing the most powerful and influential people in our country to consider the problem and to think about solving it, you're certainly not going to get anywhere.

ZARROLI: By using his own background Johnson is able to pierce the wealth bubble and focus a little more attention on what's happening.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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