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Picturing the dot-com boom and bust: 'Men in Gold'

Silicon Valley gold diggers discuss money, sex and legacy on video in a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit. Photos: Sex, Silicon Valley and video tape

What's it like to be rich in Silicon Valley? Visitors to a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit can find out by watching candid videos of seven dot-com boom-and-bust survivors who share what money means to them.

Five months ago, the museum commissioned the project, Living Pictures/Men in Gold, from French artist Silvie Blocher, who had spent hours interviewing each of the seven men. Though volunteers, they seem almost vulnerable in front of the camera while discussing their innermost thoughts--many of which can be particularly fascinating to someone who has never had a lot of money.

One entrepreneur tells of how straight out of college, after being paid $100,000 in cash, he and his girlfriend rolled around (with their clothes on) in the bills and took polaroids. It was "a moment when money was like cocaine," he says. That statement is followed by silence and then an awkward giggle.

The men were all ambitious, Blocher said in an interview on Friday. They have "an unbelievable wish to do something, even if they can't say what," she said. They also realized that there are things that money can't buy, like love, reputation and happiness. "The question of image and identity was the most interesting subject for me in these videos," she said.

Many of the men are not identified, which was a shame because it would have been interesting to see who they were, given some of the candid comments they made. One of them--Rusty Rueff, chief executive of digital-music company Snocap--does identify himself. He talks on camera about his desire to leave a legacy by contributing to his former university. "There is a sense of making sure that your life carries on past the years that you walk the earth," Rueff says. "Does anyone care about a name on a wall 20 years, 50 years, 100 years from now? I hope they do. I hope the name is still there."

Another man talks about entering grade school when he was 4 years old, after his father was killed. "When I finished school, I realized, simply, I wanted to be rich."

Several of the men made a connection between money and sex. "Money certainly is erotic," says one. "Money makes you feel big, powerful and safe. It's really delicious to have means you think you can do anything you want, and you can do anything you want."

Another man makes a more direct connection to sex: "Money can be a sexual experience without an orgasm." And a third admits to having had sex in his Porsche.

One man, identified later as Mayfield Fund venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, talks about encountering Silicon Valley's exclusive, white, inner circle. "I have not had my revenge yet on the explode the circle from the inside," he says.

One man admits that he is "tight-fisted with money and a penny pincher." He says, "I find that is the way to build successful companies, and it's impossible to not have that pour out into your everyday life." He also talks of the devastation that the dot-com bust inflicted on San Francisco's South of Market community, where many dot-com companies were located. He talks of the empty buildings, sidewalk sales of pricey Herman Miller chairs and desks, and near giveaways of expensive computer equipment. "It all just disappeared overnight," he says sadly.

French native Jean-Louis Gassee, recognizable because of his years in the industry, first as an executive at Apple in the 1980s and then as founder of Be, humorously discusses his bad-boy reputation. "I had a reputation for being flamboyant and abrasive, and now that I'm at peace, I call myself a recovering a-hole-aholic."

To Gassee, "Silicon Valley is like Disneyland, only with technology."

The exhibit, which runs through May 13, presents a sharp contrast to another Blocher exhibit, Living Pictures/Je et Nous (I and Us), being shown right next door. The subjects of that exhibit are from a poverty-stricken Paris suburb.