Money (BBC 2)

Rachel Cooke is depressed by brash displays of greed and emptiness.

Rachel Cooke is depressed by brash displays of greed and emptiness.

The sound of grotesquely rich people talking about money is mostly ghastly, while listening to poor people discuss it is usually upsetting. So how to feel about the first part of Vanessa Engle's new documentary series, Money (Tuesdays, 9pm), in which people with crushing credit card debts described how they planned on becoming millionaires by paying for the "help" of "wealth gurus" and wealth gurus described how they had become millionaires by taking advantage of - sorry, I mean mentoring - people with hefty overdrafts? In my case, each wave of disgust was rapidly followed by a wave of pity until, about halfway in, something inside me snapped and disgust took over. I know that desperation makes people stupid. But honestly, does anyone really believe that rubbing your ear lobes vigorously while shouting the words, "I am financially free!" is going to make your bank balance swell overnight, like a giant puffball in an autumn field?

I love Engle's films. A superb interviewer, death by quotation is her speciality. She lets people talk and they damn themselves (or not,
if they happen to be decent). In Phoenix, Arizona, she spoke to a famous wealth guru: Robert Kiyosaki, co-author of the seminal text Rich Dad Poor Dad. Yuck. Kiyosaki first described how he had met his wife, Kim, at TGI Friday's in Honolulu. He then went on to explain the difference between an asset and a liability. An asset pays for itself by generating cash, whereas a liability merely leaks cash. A Ferrari, he noted, is a liability and a hotel and golf course is an asset. Beside him, Kim goggled admiringly, safe in the knowledge that she is an asset, what with being in possession of her own property portfolio. Man, I disliked Kiyosaki, the 21st-century version of a snake oil merchant. But at least he didn't, unlike his neighbour, T Harv Eker, author of Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, describe himself (without irony) as a cross "between Donald Trump and Buddha".

Back in Blighty, we have fallen for the US's latest export in a big way. In hotels and conference centres across the land, hundreds of people are spending hundreds of pounds every month on courses run by Kiyo­saki and his various acolytes and wannabes. Engle had found plenty of disturbing examples on both sides. There was the creepy Marcus, who runs courses for those so desperate to achieve “passive wealth" that they seem not to be embarrassed to perform his barmy brand of financial calisthenics.

There was the blank-eyed Sarah, who read Rich Dad Poor Dad at 12 and now, aged 18, had decided to dedicate the next year to becoming
a millionaire and university be damned ("Unlimited income appeals to me," she said, as if it were something she could pick up in Topshop). Worst of all, there was Janice, a 38-year-old nursery school teacher from Ilford, who had attended so many wealth courses, you wondered if she wasn't just lonely. Certainly, they were not doing her much good. Around her house was a series of jars, each one carefully labelled "Passive income fund", into which she would shove a few coins every morning while shouting, "Kerching!" She seemed not to notice the disjunction between this pitiful routine and her conviction that a mansion and lunch at Le Caprice were just around the corner. She had bought the lies, literally and metaphorically.

How ironic, then, that what struck me most forcibly about the programme was how lacking in imagination everyone was. No one, neither rich nor poor, was able adequately to explain why they wanted to be wealthy. Nor did the word "greed" ever pass their lips. Beyond the obvious - property, Lamborghinis, more property - they seemed to have no ideas at all about how money might be spent. When an insipid woman called Maria wandered her vast house, pointing out its features - underfloor heating, a "medieval-style" dining room, a balcony on which one could eat one's morning croissant - I could only think how sterile the place seemed. No books, no paintings. It might as well have been a hotel. Maria "retired" at 39, thanks to the "passive income" generated by her rental properties. Has this made her happy? I don't know. All I can tell you is that something in me - call me a big old Protestant - found her lifestyle only a little less grim than that of poor Janice.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral