Excerpt: 'The Natural History of the Rich'

One day in Los Angeles I turned off Sunset Boulevard and drove up the winding, verdant roads into Bel Air to visit the home of the Hollywood producer Peter Guber. Guber, who made his biggest box office splash with the film Batman, lives in a twelve-acre hilltop compound at the end of a cul de sac, behind a high masonry wall with a massive pegged-oak gate. It could be the entrance to the Batcave.

When I identified myself via the security speaker, the gate swung wordlessly open. A driveway circled up to the main house, where an assistant walked me through another pegged gate into the courtyard, through the polished marble hallway, past a Dubuffet, and finally through yet another pair of gatelike doors into the pool room. There I waited, beneath a Hurrell portrait of Greta Garbo, who was staring down rather hard. On the coffee table was a book with a Charles Bell painting on the cover, depicting the innards of a pinball machine, much like the large Charles Bell painting on the wall. Another book, on Louis Comfort Tiffany, served notice that the Tiffany table lamp with dragonflies on the shade had not come from Pottery Barn.

Guber was a tall, lean, animated character, in blue jeans and a polo shirt, with a small feather that had somehow gotten caught in his hair. He was obsessed at that moment with the question of "shoot-outs" in the entertainment business, the topic of a book he was working on. He was also nursing a wounded reputation, because he'd been a big dog during Sony's disastrous entry into Hollywood and was said by one book to have helped perpetrate "the most public screwing in the history of the business." It made the idea of living behind stone walls seem prudent.

"If people know you're a killer, they want to kill you," he said, at one point. And again, "Sometimes there's a shoot-out, and you don't realize it's happened. You walk home or you go to a restaurant, and you fall over in your soup."

Guber was not only a combative character but also highly territorial. He had a 200-acre oceanfront place in Hawaii and a 1,000-acre ranch in the Woody Creek section of Aspen, with signs out front threatening to close the Nordic ski trail if people used his driveway to get to it. In Los Angeles, his house looked down on the celebrated Hotel Bel-Air, "where every guest becomes part of the legend."

Guber had negotiated to build a long granite stairway down to the hotel with a private entrance, so he would not have to linger among the mere legends at the front door. The deal also included 24-hour room service at home, in case the urge for a salmon tartare with caviar and marinated cucumbers should ever strike at some dark hour. Yet, at one point in our conversation, Guber remarked, "The trouble with being rich is, you only meet other rich people."

On some level, he probably meant it. But of course the rich routinely structure their lives for the specific purpose of meeting only other rich people. It's why the same people turn up on the same big weekends in Aspen, making the airport so crowded that the Learjets must huddle like fledglings under the wings of the Gulfstream Vs. It's why you can find billionaires lined up at 4:30 a.m. during Christmas week to get a chaise by the pool at the Four Seasons Maui (the Four Seasons has somehow devised a system whereby one cannot bribe or send a substitute to hold one's seat; you have to show up yourself before dawn).

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