The young and the useless


Issue: "Lord of the Rings," Dec. 20, 2003

Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, the central figures in the hit reality show The Simple Life (FOX), are what the classic moralists condemned as "the idle rich." Productive and successful parents made a fortune in the hotel business and the music industry, respectively, and now their children live off the wealth but do nothing.

Ms. Hilton and Ms. Richie have never worked a day in their lives. They have no husbands, no children-just a chihuahua named Tinkerbell-no responsibilities, no charities. In theological terms, they have no callings.

They spend their time partying, adorning themselves, and conspicuously consuming. And, as the moralists warned, idle hands really are the devil's playground. Ms. Hilton embarrassed her family by showing up in a sex tape now being distributed on the internet, and Ms. Richie has been busted for illegal drugs.

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So now America takes pleasure watching them descend into the real world, to a farm in Altus, Ark., where ordinary folks have to work hard to earn a living. Here they have to share a single bathroom with seven other people, take minimum-wage jobs at the dairy or the Sonic (from which they keep getting fired), and go shopping on a budget.

The premise of the reality show led to concerns that Hollywood would make fun of rural Arkansas, particularly the three-generation Leding family that the jetsetters have to live with. But the farm family comes across with dignity. The rich girls with their out-of-place designer fashions and astonishing cluelessness ("What's Wal-Mart? Do they sell wall stuff?") are the ones who are ridiculous.

The Ledings seem like a solid family. One of the rules the father gives their guests is "no cussing or bad language," though this does not prevent much of Ms. Hilton's and Ms. Richie's dialogue from having to be bleeped out. An emerging plotline is that the two might corrupt the young men of Altus.

Of course the show, like other reality shows, sets up situations artificially to make good TV. It doesn't take an L.A. socialite to draw back from castrating hogs or preg-testing cattle by hand. Still, there are moments that seem touchingly genuine, such as the little Leding boy coming to the girls' rescue by killing the bugs in their room-as they scream and run around hysterically-with a flyswatter.

Being on a hit TV show is finally giving Ms. Hilton and Ms. Richie something to be famous for. Acting jobs beckon. Ms. Richie is going to cut a record. Maybe this experience on the farm will actually help them get jobs.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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