Do the Right Thing
Ben Goldhirsh is zipped into his wetsuit, at the wheel of a cluttered old Ford. He pulls into the parking lot at Topanga Beach, kills the ignition and checks the surf. “Do you know Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments?” he asks. (That’s the Notorious B.I.G.) “Interestingly enough, a lot of the life lessons my dad tried to pass on to me bear a striking similarity to Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments.” He laughs, a little uncomfortably. “Rule No. 1 is never let anyone know how much money you have.”
I had asked about money, because Ben is getting a reputation in Hollywood as a rich guy. But something is off when you try and cast him in the role. For one thing, you don’t hate him. You don’t even envy him, really--though his life is enviable enough. Just a few weeks after his 26th birthday, he is financing half a dozen films at his production company, Reason Pictures; getting ready to launch a national magazine, called Good; eyeing television, book publishing and the music business; and running a private foundation that gives millions a year to charity. That, and he just moved out of a small, bland studio apartment and into an airy farmhouse with a Guernica-sized TV, a stone fireplace that could double as a climbing wall, a guest cottage and hiking trails on five rugged acres in the middle of Beverly Hills. (“My Realtor kept showing me these slick L.A. places with fountains and marble tigers spitting water onto Venuses,” he says. “Finally I was like, dude, you’re going to get fired. Think calloused hands and dirty fingernails.”)
You don’t hate him because, except for the house, it takes a real effort to remember that he’s richer than everyone else you know put together. Most days, he wears a plain button-down shirt, tucked into the same non-designer jeans he had on the day before, and scuffed, brown suburban-dad shoes. “What the Rockports bring to the table is a level of honesty,” he says in a deadpan that manages to be dry and goofy at the same time, “They say, ‘I wear Rockports, I’m not trying to pull a fast one on you.’” The Ford truck is the same one he drove as a teenager, when he had to borrow the keys from his dad.
Then there are his friends. They are guys he met in high school or college, guys with credit card debt and ordinary last names. When a bunch of them moved to Los Angeles, and he was camped out in the tiny guest cottage so crews could gut and rebuild the main house, he bought bunks, and the guys shared his bedroom for months while they hunted for jobs and apartments.
There’s something in his smile, his walk, the way he fidgets: Privilege hasn’t seeped into his muscles, made him languid, aristocratic. He doesn’t even act entitled around beautiful women; he gets flustered and talks too much. (Ben, earlier: “Did you hear about the meeting this morning?” Zach Frechette, a Good editor: “Yeah, I heard she was cute and Jewish, and you had problems.”)
Wealth is weird. Like anything weird, it can become familiar, which is why a lot of rich people think their lives are normal. Either they earned their money and got rich too slowly to notice all the little changes--changes in them, changes in the people around them--or they were born with it and never knew another life. But once in a while, it happens: A guy isn’t rich, and then he is. He gets kidnapped from one reality and left by the side of the road in another.
Ben exhales heavily. The beach is abandoned. He left work early to beat the sunset, but he’s still learning to surf and hitting the waves alone seems like a good way to drown. He is thinking--costs, opportunities. “Well,” he says, swinging open the car door. “At least I can get wet.”
Ben’s father, Bernard Goldhirsh, was an earner. He grew up in a tiny, crowded Brooklyn apartment. When he took off for MIT, it was the first time he had left the five boroughs. After he graduated, he worked as a scientist, first at Polaroid, then engineering ballistic missile guidance systems. In his free time, he started a sailing newsletter, which turned into Sail magazine and a new career. He sold the magazine in 1980 for about $10 million, and invested most of that in a new magazine, Inc., which later sold for a reported $200 million. “He was a very big brain on this little body,” Ben recalls. “He was only 5 feet, 5 inches. But he looked at people like, I am going to eat you. I used to bitch about how short I was going to be, and he would say, hey, big people work for me.”
There is a faded, framed magazine cover in Ben’s house, a fake copy of Inc. Ben and his sister are the cover models, squirmy elementary school kids playing with fistfuls of money. It’s a funny artifact, though, because Ben hardly had a Richie Rich upbringing. Bernie Goldhirsh did make fistfuls of money, but he never had much talent for spending it. He drove old cars, ate at cheap restaurants and bought his khakis from Kmart. He never consumed; he only invested. Sail had been around eight years before he took his first vacation.
“My dad was frustrated, seeing me grow up in a privileged environment,” Ben says. Worse, he felt guilty for creating it. So he did what he could. “I never had any money,” Ben laughs. When he left for boarding school and college, his father made sure he stayed broke. But too soon, all that would change.
Ben was a junior at prep school, hanging out in his dorm room, when his father called. His mother, Wendy Goldhirsh, had fainted. There was blood in her stomach, and the doctors wanted to do some tests. Ben shrugged it off; parents get sick sometimes and then they get better. But stomach cancer is quick and violent. Eight months after his mother fainted, she died. “January 24,” Ben says.
Fifteen months later, when he was a freshman at Brown, his father called again. “I was just. . . I wasn’t ready,” Ben says, rubbing his eyes.
His father had brain cancer.
Surgery worked. Chemo worked. Bernie Goldhirsh seemed to get better. But he began to tell Ben about his failed investments, and why they failed. He made his son tag along when he met with his lawyers and financial advisors. And then he started getting sick again. When he grew too ill to run Inc., he invited Ben, then 20, to take over the business. Ben remembers his answer: “How do you feel about someone inheriting a magazine about entrepreneurship?”
It was the start of a difficult conversation. Ben, his sister, Elizabeth, then a divinity student at Harvard, and their father spent hours together in the hospital, trying to decide what to do with the family’s money. Ben’s father considered giving it all away. “You should have the opportunity to make it on your own,” he told Ben. “I was like, I respect your choice; I understand that,” Ben says, laughing quietly. “I was shaking in my boots!”
Eventually, his father endowed a new philanthropic organization, the Goldhirsh Foundation. He gave $20 million from the sale of Inc. to his employees and made Ben listen to every stunned, grateful voicemail. Then he put most of his son’s inheritance in a trust that would pay out in installments over the next few decades. Ben could get the cash early, but only to make investments or start companies, and then he would have to make a pitch to a board of his father’s close friends and financial advisors.
The night of his father’s funeral, a few weeks after Ben graduated from college, his childhood friends gathered at his father’s mansion on the coast north of Boston. It was his father’s only extravagance--justified, like Ben’s new place in L.A., as an investment. They stayed up late in his father’s study, with its bright white walls and nautical prints and wide windows overlooking the Atlantic. “We had a fun, beautiful evening,” Ben recalls.
I must have looked surprised. “Have you ever been around terminal illness? A lot of the pain happens when someone is alive. It’s awful for them; it’s awful for you. When someone passes, there’s a relief,” he says. “My buddy George did his stand-up routine that night, and he killed. That’s a tough crowd. I got laid, in my yard, under the stars.” He pauses. “Now that’s a little weird.”
“The next day, I remember my buddy asked how much money I have on my bank card. I didn’t know. So we checked,” he says. “It was a joke.”
And it begged the question: Now what?
In a little yellow house in West Hollywood, where dirty dishes stack up in the sink and signs of a barbecue linger on the front porch, a dozen kids huddle over laptops and scripts, busy at work on Ben’s fledgling media empire. It’s impossible to tell the interns from their bosses. Senior executives Bristol Baughan, 26, and Chris Koch, 25, screen a documentary pitch about a preschooler whose finger paintings sell for thousands of dollars. (“Yes!” Bristol says, pumping her fist, “child prodigies!”) Big Al, a pink-cheeked intern in shorts and running shoes, slouches on a couch, reading about prisons. (That’s Al Gore III, incidentally--that Gore.) The office dog? A puppy, of course. “Receipts, receipts!” a young woman calls out, as Daryl bounds off with a mouthful of paper.
After his father died, Ben moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the producing program at USC. He endured a few months of training for a peonship, then approached his favorite professor, a studio veteran, with an idea that had been percolating since college. He wanted to make “relevant films"--movies that ask hard questions about society and propose new ways to think about the world, without allowing sex, comedy and action to get lost in the message. And really, there was no reason to wait. “I don’t know if you know this,” Ben told his professor, “but I’ve got loot.”
“For a long time I thought I’d go into politics,” he says now. “But who really has more influence: a congressman or Rupert Murdoch?” As much as anything, it is a comment on his generation--ambivalent about Democrats and Republicans, but likely to volunteer, buy socially responsible goods and be steeped in media. Bristol came to Hollywood with similar ambitions. Al too: “I didn’t want to work in government,” Al says, “but I wanted to effect change. The cultural arena provides just as good an opportunity.” Ben, though, had the cash to act on that impulse. “There’s an emerging culture of giving a damn among young people,” he says. “We just want to offer a platform for that.”
He dropped out of USC, and soon he and his professor were budgeting $30 million of his inheritance. At the last minute, Ben balked. “It was a harebrained number,” he admits. And hiring a bunch of old guys to make movies with his dad’s money? “This wasn’t earning it.” Instead, he hired his classmate Chris, and the two of them moved into an office on Sony’s lot. They reviewed a lot of scripts that seemed unlikely to change the world. And they got bored. So they took one of Ben’s political science papers from college and recast it as a documentary about the global condition--race, poverty, religion, gender, violence, celebrity--told through the story of six World Cup teams. They started coming in earlier and sleeping at the office. And Ben set to work convincing his skeptical trustees that this movie business was serious, and expensive. “Here’s a kid who inherited a [expletive] of money,” Ben laughs. “And he lives in Hollywood. Working 16 hours days and sleeping on the couch is probably not what came to their minds.”
After months of hustling, Ben persuaded Michael Apted, creator of the “7-Up” documentary series, to direct the soccer picture, which is now shooting on five continents. “They were very savvy in choosing Michael,” says Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich’s producing partner, who sought out Ben to talk about collaborating in the future. “Or as they put it, ‘an old guy,’ which I thought was completely adorable.” The film, still unnamed, may premiere at Sundance next year. Then comes “Marching Powder,” a Don Cheadle movie about drugs, prison and community, coproduced with Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B, and more than half a dozen other projects, from a gang film about civil rights to a comedy about globalization.
But films take forever to produce, and Ben gets restless in a long meeting. Take “Marching Powder”: “It’s shocking how long we’ve been working, and we don’t have a script yet,” he says after marking up a draft with the writer and a guy from Plan B. “I’m about to kill myself.” And after spending so much time making movies, he began to see their limitations, at least as his sole vehicle to do good. He can manage to release only a few films a year, and that makes it pretty hard to sustain any kind of public conversation, much less push a Reason Pictures worldview, especially because nobody outside the film industry pays attention to production credits.
“I was like, Good magazine,” he says. “That’s dope!”
That was it--he called his college roommate and his best friend from high school, who brought in another guy from their teenage crowd, and a few months later, Reason Pictures had a spinoff. They hired designers and consultants, and recruited smart young writers such as James Surowiecki, Gary Shteyngart and Minna Proctor for a September launch. Good magazine will offer a hipster take on the world of energy, organic food, sweatshop-free fashion, politics, indie culture, do-gooder business and green living. All subscription fees will go to one of 12 Good-approved nonprofits--the subscriber gets to choose--including Ashoka, which gives micro-grants to promote social entrepreneurs around the world; City Year, a sort of domestic Peace Corps; and UNICEF. The donation scheme will cost Ben $1 million, but he hopes it will reduce his publicity expenses. (And if it doesn’t, oh well, it’s charity.) That kind of bold altruism is winning him powerful admirers and protectors. “He’s passionate and deeply concerned about the world,” says television legend Norman Lear, a kind of mentor to Ben and, along with author David Halberstam, a board member at Good. “I don’t know where it comes from, but I marvel at it.”
Ben wanders around the little house in West Hollywood, checking on the far corners of his empire. Soon, they will move to a real office; he wonders if the place will change when they do. He does a few pull-ups in a door frame, bounces a tennis ball against the wall, laughs with the guys at Good until he is out of breath and wrestles on the floor with Daryl. “I never liked hanging out at my house growing up,” he says. “My parents didn’t have the sweetest partnership. It was a great experience to leave home and go to prep school. That began a real family of friends. When my mom got sick, that family of friends was there. When my father got ill, it was the same thing. I don’t care where I am, what I have, how I’m dressed. The only constant for me is friends.”
One of those friends, Tracy Durning, appears on the front porch, grinning warmly. The two of them climb into Ben’s truck and head for South L.A., where a grant from Ben’s foundation has funded a program to teach entrepreneurship in three city schools. Soon, Tracy, a producer and fundraiser, is doubled over laughing. Ben is supposed to help a group of eighth graders learn how to launch a business, and she guesses what his advice will be. “Lesson No. 1,” she says, flashing a wicked, white smile, “employ all your friends even if they have no marketable skills.”
Tracy’s visit is something of a return favor. She recruited Ben to travel to Kenya and Malawi earlier this year with economist Jeff Sachs and his United Nations-affiliated Millennium Project, one of her pet causes, and Ben committed a $1.5-million gift from the Goldhirsh Foundation, which today has assets of about $130 million. Now he wants to help draw young Hollywood’s attention to the poor in Los Angeles. “All you need to do is create a way for people to see it in their interest,” he says, veering across two lanes of traffic.
If Ben’s dad was reluctant to leave his kids a fortune, he was more reluctant to leave them a foundation. “He didn’t want to burden us with it,” Ben says. Fortunes attract looters, and Ben, days out of college, had to fight off rivals for his inheritance almost as soon as his father passed. “The [expletive] that went down . . .” Ben says, with uncharacteristic detachment. “Just think about the most wacked-out ways people can go after money.” At least he and his sister were united. Later, though, questions about the foundation’s direction drove them to fight with each other, and with their father’s closest friends and advisors. It was raw and exhausting.
Through the foundation, Bernie Goldhirsh committed his millions to brain cancer research. After he died, his sister felt they should do more for Israel, though she was happy enough to support cancer research there. (“She’s a big Jew,” Ben says.) Ben wanted to depart further. “You’d think my experience with my parents would amplify my interest in cancer research,” Ben says. “But are we supporting this because we have a personal bias? Look at the number of people who die from brain cancer. It’s tiny. My dad was such a scientist, I can’t believe he would disagree.”
After a painful argument that stretched on for more than a year, Ben--who now oversees a large portion of the foundation--took half of its annual millions and committed them to social entrepreneurs, B-school types who work on broad issues such as education, poverty and economic development. That new focus doesn’t mean, though, that the agonizing choices are behind him. Last summer, on his way to Malawi, he gave several thousand dollars to a refugee camp in Ghana so that all the kids could have desks and books at school. “But I feel weird about it, to be honest,” he says. “I just gave that gift and booked it. I haven’t stayed in touch with them. Sometimes, you feel like you have a limited bandwidth for helping out.” While he was there, another group approached him about sponsoring a refugee teenager to study in the United States. “The girl is so cool,” he says, showing me a picture of the two of them wading in the bright shallows of the Gulf of Guinea. Her name is Lovetta. “But then, does it make sense to spend $20,000 on one kid, or invest in the Ghanaian school system?” He doesn’t know. These kinds of questions are intellectual exercises until you have millions to pledge to an answer; then they eat at you long after you decide.
Especially since money, Ben’s kind of money, buys legitimacy and influence. (Bristol, earlier: “Are you going to Coachella this weekend?” Ben: “No, I have to speak at Harvard. As much as I’d like to see Coldplay with you and your little hipster friends, I have human rights and the media to worry about.” Bristol, laughing: “You are such a dork.”) A few days before, Ben had to interrupt a script meeting to take a call from the Iranian mission to the United Nations. They had learned about Good’s partnership with UNICEF and Ben’s foray into foreign aid, and wanted to introduce themselves. A few weeks later, the Millennium Project would elect Ben to its board. “I heard there was one member who was like, are you kidding me? We’re putting a 25-year-old on the board?” Ben says, and then laughs. “I think I’m going to show up to my first meeting in a T-shirt that says Radical. Hey guys, poverty sucks, huh?” He actually seems a bit anxious. “I’d like to think there are some elements other than money that attracted them to me.”
With the movies and the publishing and the philanthropy, Ben has taken an entire career arc and made it his first job out of college. It is all a little chaotic and sometimes a little too improvised. In a rare, quiet moment--between a call to recruit sponsors for his World Cup film and a visit from One, a celebrity-heavy campaign against AIDS and developing world debt--Ben seems tired and unsettled. “God,” he says, in a distant voice, “I feel a little nauseous about all this stuff.”
Later, we stop at a convenience store and get a couple of bottles of Mexican soda. “I spend most of my day responding to requests for money, and 90% of the people are really great, really interesting,” he tells me. Usually he says no. “That takes a lot of the fun away. A lot of the time, even when I say yes, I feel insecure about it. Maybe as I grow up, I won’t spend so much time second-guessing.”
He can afford to make mistakes. He has committed to at least two movies, six issues of Good and several million dollars’ worth of philanthropy a year, and it seems he could keep up that pace for a long time without making back any money--though he does hope his magazine and films will generate substantial revenue. (Ben won’t say exactly how much he has invested or plans to invest in his media ventures.)
Before Ben’s father died, three generations of Goldhirsh men gathered at a family dinner: Ben, his father and his grandfather. Ben’s father had supported his grandfather for years, sending small but frequent checks, and his grandfather had cashed them without a word. “He’s the kind of guy, though, you can’t take him to a baseball game unless you tell him you won the tickets,” Ben says. “He can’t read right now, but he won’t buy glasses because he’s going to die soon.” Seeing his son ailing, Ben’s grandfather had something for him: a check. “It must have been a couple hundred thousand dollars. It was every penny my father ever sent to him. He’d been saving it,” Ben says. “It meant so much to my grandfather to be able to give it back.
“I’m trying to have a comfort with money that my father and grandfather never did,” he says. That means he is prepared to risk much of his father’s fortune in the pursuit of a worthy life. What keeps him at the office most nights after everyone else has gone home is the idea that he might blow it and squander his chance to do good. “There’s no one more scared of failing, no one who appreciates more how hard my father worked for this money,” he says. “It’s not mine to lose.”