If you enter Ivanka Trump’s childhood bedroom, located on the 68th floor of Trump Tower, you will find, among other things: A clock featuring Madonna’s face. A series of 90210 trading cards. An “homage” to Poison and Mötley Crüe, in the form of several posters. Over here, some artwork that she made herself—“my interesting attempt at color painting,” she quips. Framed photos and figurines line her white shelves. The walls are petal pink; the furniture is white lacquer. A teddy bear rests on her single bed.
“This is a room that no one’s probably walked into for 10-plus years,” she laughs lightly. “It’s a little time capsule.” Ivanka Trump: She’s just like us! Or at least, that’s what she’s always wanted to think.
The footage is courtesy of Born Rich, a 2003 documentary directed by Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. The project, in which Johnson spent a couple of years interviewing 10 of his fellow deep-pocketed cohorts, began as his thesis at NYU, but eventually morphed into something larger and more grotesque. What, Jamie muses as the film opens, on the eve of his 21st birthday, did any of them do to earn the sort of money they had? “All I did was inherit it,” he says bleakly.
Johnson is endowed with a sense of self-awareness possessed by at least a few of the documentary’s other protagonists. Some, like Josiah Hornblower (the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt), are visibly mortified by their unearned wealth. Others, like textile heir Cody Franchetti, are decidedly not. “[Bill] Clinton wears this kind of thing,” Franchetti said after describing a particularly offensive suit. “He looks like a restaurant owner. It’s so vulgar.”
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But only one of the cloistered figures featured here has recently ascended to the West Wing, where she maintains an office just down the hall from her father—the most powerful man in the free world. The sheltered teen with the Poison posters now has a hand in policy decisions with far-reaching, lasting impact, nepotism statutes and conflict of interest laws be damned. Her father, who after just 11 weeks in office has found himself vastly out of his depth, relies heavily on her guidance.
What Born Rich taught me is that Ivanka has always been the same—utterly blind to her own privilege, and devoid of empathy for anyone whose Madonna clock was hung, say, on the wall of a trailer or public housing, rather than a Central Park-facing, multi-million dollar apartment.
Filming for Born Rich took place primarily between 1999 and 2001, and photos from that time indicate that Ivanka was around 18 during her initial sit-down with Johnson. In later interviews Ivanka is blonde, but when she first appears on screen, her hair is brown, hanging stick-straight across her shoulders. She’s wearing a white tube top, and around her neck hangs a small cross.
“I think no matter what I hear about my parents, about my family, no matter what I read, the fact is I’m absolutely proud to be a Trump,” she says. She acknowledges that there was a time when she was worried that she’d live her whole life in her parents’ shadow, but those days are gone now. “It’s not a bad shadow to be under I guess, so it’s OK,” she says.
Unlike the film’s other subjects, Ivanka appears neither proud of nor embarrassed by her wealth. She seems to consider herself completely normal—just your run-of-the-mill American girl who happens to have been born to a billionaire. When pressed to describe what having money means to her, Ivanka skillfully deflects those questions, instead offering a series of “humanizing” anecdotes. In one story, she recounts how she learned that her parents were splitting up from the cover of the New York Post, emerging from school that day to a swarm of paparazzi.
“It makes it much more difficult to deal with your personal emotions...knowing that you’re going to walk out of the building and there’s going to be a bunch of people running after you, asking you difficult questions,” she says. This story is meant to elicit sympathy—if anything, fame and wealth are hard.
In the years since the documentary was filmed, Ivanka seems to have doubled-down on the notion that her vast privilege is, in fact, a handicap. There’s a sequence in her 2009 book, The Trump Card, in which she relays a story about the difficulty of setting up a childhood lemonade stand. From The New Yorker:
When Ivanka was a kid, she got frustrated because she couldn’t set up a lemonade stand in Trump Tower. “We had no such advantages,” she writes, meaning, in this case, an ordinary home on an ordinary street. She and her brothers finally tried to sell lemonade at their summer place in Connecticut, but their neighborhood was so ritzy that there was no foot traffic. “As good fortune would have it, we had a bodyguard that summer,” she writes. They persuaded their bodyguard to buy lemonade, and then their driver, and then the maids, who “dug deep for their spare change.” The lesson, she says, is that the kids “made the best of a bad situation.”
Born Rich makes it clear that Ivanka has been harboring this delusion of normalcy since childhood. She’s since become more polished, wise to the ways of employing whimsical Instagram shots to bolster her “everywoman” image.
But she was a little less practiced back then, and at the time she thought it wise to recount a moment from her modeling days, when she was approached by a man at an after-party in Australia. (Ivanka has a way of recalling past capers in the manner of a world-weary Vietnam vet.)
So this man, whom she’s never met, walks up to her at this fashion party, and he says,
“‘What does it feel like to be wealthy?’ And I was like ‘Excuse me?’ And he goes ‘What’s does it feel like to never have felt any pain?’
“And that really upset me. Not because I was upset for myself, but because I was upset for him. I was bothered by the fact that he could be so ignorant. And that there are people out there who could say such a blanketed thing and just be so downright stupid, and just not use the brain that they have. And that’s what bothered me.
“Not the fact that anything he said really wounded me deep down, but that there are people who think like that. To think that with money comes happiness.”
And this, right here, is the core of what makes Ivanka such a imminent threat to this country. Because Ivanka truly believes that she understands your pain. That hearing news of her parents’ divorce from a tabloid is somehow equivalent to being forced to give birth because your state shuttered its last abortion clinic. That her failed lemonade stand allows her insight into the daily terror of wondering whether your neighbors will out you to ICE. That anything in Ivanka’s plush, sybaritic life has even remotely resembled the misery that millions of Americans experience as daily reality.
It’s no secret that Ivanka is essentially her father in sleeker packaging. But as Samantha Bee pointed out last week, her more palatable exterior and faintly liberal overtures make Ivanka potentially more sinister. Her “progressive” childcare plan relies entirely on tax cuts, benefiting only the wealthy. Her attempts to curb climate change were limited to accepting a DVD from Leonardo DiCaprio. Her refusal to defend reproductive rights from her father’s enablers makes her complicit in the most anti-woman administration in history.
It is not Ivanka’s fault she was born rich. It is her fault that she can’t, or won’t, acknowledge that privilege and leverage it for good. Watching Born Rich, you come to realize that the impropriety of discussing money is because it obligates you to do something useful with it.
In one scene, Ivanka is asked when she first realized she was rich. She responds that she gradually grew aware of her wealth by the way people treated her.
“But it wasn’t even my money,” she demurs. “I noticed people treating me differently because my parents had money. I never really understood that—I couldn’t give them my parents’ money. I didn’t really think it was a reason to treat me in a different way.”
“I think that’s why in friends that I have now, the major quality I look for in sincerity,” she said. “I didn’t realize it when I was younger, because I was quite sheltered, but I see it now.”
She does not appear to be joking.