In the age of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement amidst reverberating cries of the "99 percent versus the 1 percent," one has to wonder whether inclusion on the annual Forbes 400 list of the Richest People in America is actually a good thing.
At a time when the superwealthy are under a microscope, the Forbes 400 list, which yearly chronicles the ups and downs of America's billionaires, might bring some unwanted attention.
Two University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociology professors, however, said Americans are enamored with the wealthy, which often outweighs jealousy.
The U.S. is a nation of social voyeurs.
"The Forbes list is our modernday 'Great Gatsby,'" said Bo Bernhard, the executive director of UNLV's International Gaming Institute. "We're fascinated with the wealthy."
Seven Nevada residents - six of whom are associated with the gaming industry - secured spots on the 2011 list, which was released last September.
Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson topped Nevada's field in the No. 8 position with a net worth of $21.5 billion. Forbes adjusted Adelson's net worth in March to $24.9 billion and moved up a spot to No. 7.
Adelson rival Steve Wynn, chairman of Wynn Resorts Ltd., was the next wealthiest Nevadan at No. 130 with a net worth of $2.8 billion.
Four others who live outside Nevada, but have significant ties to the Strip, also made the list, topped by New York hedge fund manager John Paulson, whose company owns large chunks of MGM Resorts International, Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Boyd Gaming Corp. Paulson was listed at No. 15 with a net worth of $15.5 billion.
Bernhard and Shannon Monnat, an associate professor in UNLV's sociology department, said the list has experienced some radical industrial shake-ups in the past few decades. Monnat said the Forbes list had once been "composed of people who actually made things. Increasingly, the list is (now) composed of hedge fund managers, investors and real estate moguls."
Bernhard said the gaming industry is no longer just a Nevada business, but a worldwide conglomerate where massive amounts of money are wagered legally. In 2010, commercial casinos nationwide collected $34.6 billion in taxable revenues.
"The modern casino-resort, which was created in Las Vegas, is how people get their entertainment," Bernhard said. "The list is reflective of the products of the day, which is why you see gaming represented. If history is followed, other industries will disappear."
The Forbes 400 list had often been considered something to which Americans could aspire. Through hard work, good decisions and innovative ideas, poor Americans stood a chance at becoming wealthy individuals.
Monnat said the "rags-to-riches" story can still happen, but it's much less likely than it was 30 years ago. She cited Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, who topped the list for the 18th straight year with $59 billion in net worth, and Adelson, as individuals that could be considered "self-made."
However, substantial historical and contemporary structures have been created in the past few decades that favor certain groups in wealth acquisition.
"Since wealth is often accumulated intergenerationally, this means that it is unlikely that a significant proportion of families without substantial wealth now will have wealth in the next generation," Monnat said. "Even within the top 400, a small percentage of that group is self-made. The rest had a huge head start thanks to the wealth their parents and grandparents had previously accumulated."
She noted six members of the Walton family, which founded the Wal-Mart Stores retail chain, were in the Forbes 400, including four members in the top 11. Nancy Walton Laurie, who lives in Henderson, was at No. 139 with a net worth of $2.7 billion and was the only Nevadan on the list without a casino industry tie.
Adelson had reached as high as No. 3 on the Forbes list in 2007 - saying at the time that he aspired to be No. 1.
After growing up poor in Boston, Adelson created several businesses, including a company that produced a big computer industry trade show. He sold the businesses for millions of dollars after he bought the Rat Pack-era Sands Hotel on the Strip in the early 1990s.
That $167 million investment in an aging hotel-casino was the start of Las Vegas Sands, which now has a market capitalization of more than $41 billion and operates The Venetian and Palazzo hotel-casinos on the Strip and properties in Macau, Singapore and Pennsylvania.
Adelson almost lost it all in 2008. Late that year, he invested more than $1 billion as part of a $2.1 billion recapitalization of Las Vegas Sands, which kept the company from falling into bankruptcy. His ownership stake declined from more than 80 percent to 53 percent, but his actions turned around the casino operator and bouyed Adelson's own sinking fortunes.
His position on the Forbes list in 2011 grew five places over 2010, marking a steady comeback. Forbes said Adelson continued "to enjoy a hot hand."
Adelson told Forbes in September that as his wealth increases, he donates additional money to cancer research.
But it's Adelson's political contributions this year that have attracted the most attention.
Adelson and his family donated more than $15 million to the ultraconservative political action committee that supported Newt Gingrich's presidential bid. Earlier in April, he gave $5 million to the PAC supporting Republican congressional candidates.
Political contributions cut both directions on the Forbes list.
Although Adelson has been heavily critical of the administration of President Barack Obama and contributed to conservative causes, now retired New York hedge fund operator George Soros, who was No. 7 on the list in September, has donated to predominantly liberal causes.
Meanwhile, investor Warren Buffett, who is ranked No. 2 on the list, has said the country's wealthiest pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes.
Monnat said that no matter on which side of the political spectrum the leading billionaires might land, the Forbes 400 could have a large influence on the political process. Combined, the 400 people on the list have more wealth than the bottom 60 percent of U.S. households.
"This means that 400 people control more wealth than nearly 70 million households combined," Monnat said. "This has major implications for economic policies in this country. Through contributions to political campaigns and super-PACs, the richest Americans have tremendous power to influence election outcomes, taxes, subsidies and business regulations."
A TITLE OUT OF CONTEXT
But we're still fascinated by the comings and goings of the wealthy.
The annual list often contains some interesting changes.
In 2010, Elaine Wynn landed a spot on the Forbes 400, due largely to the monetary settlement with her ex-husband Steve Wynn when they divorced earlier that year. Steve and Elaine Wynn split their jointly owned stock in Wynn Resorts and Elaine Wynn received 11 million shares.
She landed on the list at No. 382 with a net worth of $1.05 billion. In 2011, Elaine Wynn jumped to No. 263 with her net worth climbing to $1.7 billion.
"Elaine has been pretty successful in her own right," Bernhard said.
Elaine Wynn laughed off the inclusion in a 2010 interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, saying it didn't change the way she lives her life.
"Being recognized as having wealth really doesn't mean anything," she said then. "What is meaningful is that if you are successful, what is it that you intend to do with it. Considered in context, pointing out somebody is rich is just frivolous, unless it is also put it into context with achievement."
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at email@example.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.