These days, there's a different kind of wildly well-to-do — 9 million of them — living large and loving it, and changing the profile of America's super rich. Their options are so limitless, the rules by which they exist are so different from "old money's" day-to-day, that it's as if they live in an imaginary land all their own.
Author Robert Frank is the Columbus of this new world; as revealed in the title of his book, he calls it "Richistan."
"This is really a world unlike the world that you and I live in," he says. "Never before have so many Americans become so wealthy, so quickly … What we have today are people who worked like dogs all their life to get where they are, and that defines them."
Residents of this new world — Richistanis — are workaholic winners who savor their spoils. "This group loves to live large," Frank says. "They love their boats, they love their planes, they love their big houses."
From Welfare Kid to Richistani
Houses don't come much bigger than the 700-year-old French chateau, 45 minutes outside of Paris, that belongs to 57-year-old American billionaire Tim Blixseth. It boasts rooms full of extravagant furnishings, like a $20,000 bed, a courtyard with Old World grandeur, a medieval chapel, and some modern amenities, too, like a spa.
Blixseth made more than a billion dollars in timber and real estate — yet, he flinches when anyone calls him rich.
"It's a connotation to me, like snooty, arrogant, nose in the air, and 'Oh, they're rich,'" he says. "I don't like rude rich people who [don't] treat the working class with respect."
That attitude may have started in his youth, when he was a "welfare kid," enduring the insults of fellow students back in Oregon. "When you had hot lunches at school," Blixseth explains, "they'd say 'welfare kids get over there,' and the rest of the kids would start heckling us — and that was really, really degrading."
But revenge would be his. "Later on in life, the school district sold that school, and I bought it," he says. "I walked past that counter, where I'd get those lunches. And that was the 'yeah, baby!'"
Now, Blixseth can celebrate just about anywhere he feels like it: aboard one of his yachts, on one of his private jets, on his private island in the Caribbean, his ski and golf spot in Montana, or at that place in the sun in Mexico. So what does it feel like to be a winner? "It feels good," he says. "It feels really good."
The American Dream
In Palm Beach, Fla., George Cloutier and his fiancée Tiffany Spadafora feel the same way — especially when they're throwing one of their charity balls. They're extravaganzas filled with flesh and fantasy — snoozy old school balls, they're not.
"Yeah, I'm a Johnny-come-lately in their world," Cloutier says with a smile. "You do get that feeling, because you're saying, 'What are all these people doing? This is boring. Let's change that.'"
"George and Tiffany, they love to have fun," Frank says. "They don't care what your last name is. They don't care who your parents were or what boarding school you went to. If you're nice and fun, you can go to their party."
Cloutier donates some $600,000 a year to charity balls and galas; Spadafora helps him raise even more, while her stunning party dresses raise a few pulse rates in the process. But it doesn't come cheap: every party requires a new dress, and those frocks start in the thousands — and that's not counting the pricy jewelry.
"It's competitive, to some extent," Cloutier explains. "You don't want to look like you're broke, because that's just how it comes out."
Cloutier's a Harvard grad, but he wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents got by on salaries of $5,000 when he was growing up. While still in college, Cloutier helped create the first computer dating service. Then he started his own company that teaches small businesses how to make more money — making him millions.
And since he's his own boss, he works and plays when he wants. "I was very fortunate, stayed focused, and did what I loved, and was myself," he says. "When I stop being myself, I screw up."
That's the winning way of the Richistani. "What's great is, you can be wealthy on your own terms today and be whoever you want, but still have all the freedoms and the wonderful things that wealth buys," Frank says. "So, it really is the American dream — and people living the life that they want."