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Money Porn

illustration: Tom Nick Cocotos

There's a moment at the end of Fox's game show 'Greed,' right when the contestant daniel aces the final question. He punches his hands up and screams. At that moment, he and his teammates became the first players to hit the million-dollar jackpot on network TV. But there are still about 10 minutes left in the program, and the perfectly embalmed host, Chuck Woolery, seemsat a loss. Rather than summon up another contestant, the producers showed the winning moment. . . again. 'we felt that the significance of the moment in TV history was such that it would be a shame to throw it away," explains the show's executive producer, Bob Boden. "We wanted to make a bigger moment out of it." So here is Daniel punching his hands again. Here he is coming into the brilliant million.This kind of money shot has been getting a lot of play lately. Regis Philbin says one of his favorite moments from his inescapable hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was when a music teacher from West Virginia, making $12,000 a year, won $250,000 and threw his arms in the air. Last Thursday, it was replaced by that night's million-dollar payday to a single player, John Carpenter, who locked lips with his wife while the crowd pumped their arms up and confetti poured down. Network TV has found a new G-spot: greed.

The ecstasy isn't only on screen. There's a passage in The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story by Michael Lewis, when Jim Clark, the stallion behind Netscape, tours the shipyard where his sloop is being built. The ship has a 197-foot mast that would be the tallest ever built—the tallest that could ever be built. Clark prowls the length of the mast, which lies horizontally on the ground waiting to be installed. He stands at the end "with his arms outstretched," writes Lewis, "the mast jutting out from him like an enormous black phallus and booming,'Mine's 60 meters. How long is yours? ' "

If you're not Clark or Carpenter, you can still get off. Junk-lottery sites like emillionmania.com,luckysurf.com, or treeloot.com, the most successful of the bunch , are booming online. You play treeloot by clicking on different parts of a "tree" to find where money (from $400 to $25,000) is hidden. Over 2.2 million people shook the tree last month, making it one of the most popular sites on the Net. You can play as many times as you want. Most play an average of 25 times, says the site's founder, Scott Lynn, who makes his money from advertising. "We're looking to do 10 million in gross revenue this year."

There is a word for this: money porn. And we're all turned on.

Everyone loves the money stud fantasy, because there are no failures—everyone gets laid and every liaison is a smash. It's the inevitable extension of the fantasy porn celebrates: an environment without consequences, without mornings after. Money porn is suffused with the same trashy vitalism that stays fixed in constant crescendo. When was the last time you read about a start-up that couldn't get it up?

But if porn is something most of us won't cop to enjoying, money porn is a matter of pride. Take Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and, to a lesser extent, Greed (soon to spawn an orgy of knockoffs). Regis, in a silver suit and gold tie, sits on his plastic throne, presiding over a suitcase of Benjamins at center stage. Each segment opens with an extreme closeup of a five-digit check to get the blood going. Greed is even more pimpesque: Woolery parades around waving uncreased greenbacks under the contestants' noses, probing them to find out if they want the quickie cash-out or the foreplay for the big money. Woolery asks, "What would you do with 2 million dollars?" and they are insatiable. The plucky Antoinette answers, "After starting a scholarship for underprivileged kids, it's Antoinette.com."

Not surprisingly, Americans own the money-porn genre. In other countries (except for Britain, where Millionare began), "the prize money is lower, because audiences think it's obscene to win money for not doing anything," says Anne Cooper-Chen, author of Games in the Global Village . In Japan, the contestants are usually celebrities and they win dolls. In Africa and India, the shows celebrate knowledge and contestants win not cash but "scholarships and honor."

Of course, it's overwhelmingly white guys who make the cut. "About 95 percent of people who get onto the Hot Chair are white males in their thirties," notes Cooper-Chen. This is surprising because, as she points out, game shows historically "have been much more fair and representative" than the rest of TV, with both sexes equally represented and blacks more visible than they are in the population. The producers of Millionaire say the slant toward men is not a bias; they merely take the fastest possible contestants. In this "twitch-factor" theory, men are just better at answering quickly on a keypad.

Men are also more comfortable renting Up and Coming with a queue standing behind them at the video store, more comfortable with making their less pretty instincts public. Money porn isn't designed for men, they just have fewer hesitations about using it.

The fluffers of money porn-the ones that keep the stars rising—are journalists. The swoon is understandable. Silicon Valley journalists are standing in the middle of what venture-capitalist John Doerr has famously called "the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet." According to the San Jose Mercury News ,one in nine people in Santa Clara County are millionaires. It's hard not to get disoriented. "Getting drawn into the mystic appeal of it is a real risk," says former trade journalist Steve Baldwin, whose new book, Netslaves ,celebrates the bottom feeders of the Valley. "You're making $35,000, you're slaving away, and you meet these people who seem larger than life." (The rare exceptions to this, like Po Bronson, are only reluctantly journalists. Bronson began as a fiction writer.)

And money porn is just so easy to do—wealth is more public than it's ever been. With hundreds of entrepreneurs taking companies to market, their net worth is now easily tracked via documents at the Securities and Exchange Commission and NASDAQ. At the end of every trading day, CNBC shows exactly how Bill Gates's stock has performed, if only because they can. "It's tremendously voyeuristic," says Doug Henwood, editor of the Left Business Journal. "For people who don't have money, everybody looks like they're getting rich. So I'm a chump [for not investing]. I think there must be something wrong with me."

This is precisely where money porn has improved on XXX. Before, there was no way to jump from one side of the screen to the other. Now, there's iWon.com, which debuted last month, supported by hefty investment from CBS. iWon is giving away $1 million a month, $10,000 a day, $10 million on Tax Day 2000. You don't even have to answer softball questions; all you have to do is click. Emillion- mania.com, unveiled by online stock-trading company Etrade, lets visitors bet where the market will end up on December 31—guess correctly and a million is yours. By comparison, treeloot.com's five-digit payout is just a leaf on the money tree. The motto of this milieu has become "your chance to win." If money porn is the genre, scoring a sweepstakes is the shudder, the spasm, the orgasm.

The delusion has reached dramatic proportions. One half of Americans have less than $1000 in net financial assets—to win that much on Millionaire ,you'd need to answer just one simple question like "What color is Big Bird?" The majority of American households, with incomes under $35,000 (the national average is $30,000), think they've got a better chance of building their nest egg by winning the lottery or a sweepstakes than by saving their money. As a recent study shows, Americans grossly underestimate the growth of savings over time. When they were asked how much $50 invested a week for 40 years would add up to (at a hypothetical, if generous, 9 percent return), the median response was $239,400. The real amount would be over a million dollars.

But in the sweepstakes era, it's a waste of time to do the math. The way to earn is to bet on double-zero. The math might be irrelevant anyway, since the numbers don't stay stable. Internet entrepreneurs worth a billion one week (like Priceline's Jay Walker) might be worth half that the next. Even in the greatest boom in history, the value of these companies fluctuates wildly and many are trading below their opening price.

So the arms eventually drop to the sides. The screaming stops. But the action will start up again soon enough. There's no beginning, middle, or end in porn, as Susan Sontag wrote in her risky (if not risqué) essay "The Pornographic Imagination"—just an "on and on." There's always another IPO, another Daniel. The sex is so cheap, why not play? Again and again.


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