Times Staff Writer

WHAT is it with our endless fascination with heiresses? The obsessive coverage of Swarovski-dripping Paris Hilton. Reality TV shows such as "Rich Girls," scampering after Hilfiger heiress Ally Hilfiger as she cruises around Manhattan in a limo with her friends. Even the good ol' gals regularly get dusted off, recast and re-imagined; most recently, it was Doris Duke in the HBO film "Bernard and Doris."

And now it's time to pass the profiteroles and ogle an enormous new coffee-table book, "Inheriting Beauty." At 247 pages and $75, it presents color plate after color plate of bejeweled jet-setters, photographed by Roger Moenks. Don't hate them because they're beautiful (and rich): eventually some of them will be powerful too. Women such as Delphine Arnault Gancia are on their way to leading the last of today's family-owned fashion empires.

"There hasn't been a book that captures modern society in a really long time," said Moenks, a New York-based fashion and commercial photographer. "In the U.S., we're such a celebrity-obsessed culture. I think of these women as modern royalty."

And so we have Giorgio Armani's niece, Roberta Armani, director of her uncle's company, lounging barefoot on a beige couch. Arnault Gancia, heiress (and board member) to the largest luxury goods company in the world, LVMH, pensive on the windowsill. And there's Angelica Visconti, one of Salvatore Ferragamo's 22 grandchildren, who oversees development for Ferragamo's Asian market, amid some overwhelming architecture in Milan.

Moenks aimed to follow in the footsteps of Slim Aarons, whose photographs of the 1950s yachting crowd set the standard for social portraiture. But Aarons' style was candid and had an insider feeling; Moenks' portraits look impersonal and contrived, as though he unwittingly captured an age when heiresses must be more guarded in the face of mocking blogs and damning tabloids.

For the heiresses, part of the allure, no doubt, was the offer of total control: Each woman styled herself, and Moenks promised that if they didn't like the photos, he wouldn't use them. So you won't find any revealing moments -- and not much reading either. The brief bios might have been cribbed from a resume.

But the tome wasn't meant to expose big truths. Really, it's just a glossy yearbook of modern high society. There are the New York luminaries (Tinsley Mortimer, Marjorie Gubelmann, Margherita Missoni and India Hicks), a few lesser-known Asian heiresses, and a melange of Italians, including members of the Etro and Trussardi clans.

Los Angeles is represented by Alexandra von Furstenberg, former daughter-in-law of Diane, shot in an empty dining room. Jacqui Getty, who married into the famous L.A. family, is shown eye to eye with a house cat. And Casey Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson empire, with her massive German shepherd captured in mid-leap at her side.

Armani said the book was an appealing opportunity: "I hope we won't be perceived as just spoiled brats anymore," she said. "Growing up with a last name that's known is really difficult -- it's the pressure to show constantly that you're good, that you're clever, that you have confidence, that you're constantly thin. And you're not always."

Which may be why the only mention of Paris in "Inheriting Beauty" is as a geographical location.



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