HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — There is a moment in the coming Fox reality show, "The Simple Life," in which hotel heiress Paris Hilton, who has been transported to work on a dairy farm in rural America, asks her host family what a Wal-Mart is. "Do they sell walls there, or something?"
For producers, this is reality-TV gold, because of course, the entertainment value of the show lies in displaying the clueless rich girl as she flaunts her ignorance about the way simple folk live.
The problem with this scenario is that it's not true. Ms. Hilton was tweaking the family - and the producers - for her own fun. "I was joking," she says simply. "I was, like, playing dumb."
As the show unfolds, the girls (Ms. Hilton is joined by her best friend, Nicole Richie), play with our preconceptions about the pampered rich. Perhaps because both the girls and the family turn out to be unexpectedly endearing, the show is delicious fun.
When "The Simple Life" debuts Dec. 2, it will join two others already on the air - "Born Rich" on HBO, and "Rich Girls" on MTV - that deal with the lives and attitudes of some our country's most well-known wealthy offspring. Providing entertainment by tweaking the rich is as old as the Greeks. But, say observers, in targeting privileged progeny, these shows actually reveal an important sea change in our attitudes about money and its role in that most basic of American pastimes, the pursuit of happiness.
"If you look at studies of what college kids ranked most important back in 1967, contributing to society ranked very high," says Elayne Rapping, media studies professor at State University of New York at Buffalo. "Becoming wealthy was much lower. Today, it's just the opposite."
Several participants in the "Born Rich" film say their parents never mentioned the possibility that their life goals might include anything other than making money.
"[We have] affiliations that don't favor charitable actions," says S.I. Newhouse IV, heir to the Condé Nast publishing fortune.
Many of the young heirs in these various programs, Dr. Rapping points out, were born during the go-go Reagan years, in which greed was considered good in some quarters. They came of age during the stock-market explosion of the 1990s. Today, she adds, "we are living in a world in which the pursuit of money has become what I would dub an illness."
These shows are like giant Rorschach tests, says Paul Schervish, director of the Social Welfare Research Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "The commentaries that we make around the water coolers and living rooms in dealing with the subject of wealth are as much about ourselves as they are about the object of our attention," he says, adding that we look for in others that which we aspire to ourselves.
As we examine the young adults in these various shows, we are taking stock of what Mr. Schervish calls our own moral biographies.
"We are tempted in our views to either adulate or attack the wealthy; to be at their throat or at their feet," he says, primarily because we expect more of them. "We look to the wealthy to have somehow not only greater capacity, but greater character," he says. When they do, we admire them. When they appear to fail on the character front, we feel justified in excoriating them.
College student Ivanka Trump, who appears in "Born Rich," knows something about being watched. "As I go into life," she says, "people look at me sometimes in a different way and expect me - or sadly, sometimes want me - to fail in certain ways."
This examination of the wealthy for clues about our own motivations has taken on particular power in today's hyperdeveloped consumer culture.
For the first time in history, observes Schervish, it is possible for middle-class families to taste the kind of life only the rich could afford just a generation ago.
"You can buy that Lexus or go on that cruise and be on the same boat with the rich," he says, adding that this shift means more and more choices are no longer dictated by the wallet but by values.
"Luxuries have become necessities," agrees Diane Wood, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, Md. This means that "we are breeding a society of discontent."
While confessing that she herself would not be able to survive without her money (she recently purchased a $1,500 dog carrier for her pet), Hilton herself has a thing or two to say about money and happiness following her experience "roughing it" in middle America.
"I met some people there, and they're so much happier than people I see in L.A., who have so much money. People who didn't have anything were, like, more happy than people I've met out here because it's just all about your family," she says. "And I think it would be a great place to, like, raise kids, instead of raising them in L.A."