Teton County, Wyoming — home to Jackson Hole, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park — is the most unequal county in America. Over the past two decades, the ultra-wealthy have flocked here, an area of extreme natural beauty and nonexistent personal and corporate income tax. The median salary for locals is only $41,000 a year, and housing is nearly impossible to find, starkly dividing the area between those who have wealth and those who serve them.
In his new book, Billionaire Wilderness, Justin Farrell, an associate professor of sociology at Yale, interviewed more than 155 multimillionaires and billionaires who spend at least part of their year living in the mountaintop towns of Teton County. Farrell pursued the region’s ultra-wealthy as a sociological study, giving his subjects the option of anonymity to speak freely. They responded eagerly, ready to dispel myths about what it’s like to be really, really rich in America today.
GEN: How did you approach the superrich about interviewing them for your book?
Justin Farrell: It started with the need within the academic literature to have an up-close study of the ultra-wealthy. We have economic studies that are important to show the extreme concentration of wealth in the U.S. Still, there was a gaping hole: We didn’t have a lot of rigorous research at the ground level of the superrich.
Getting access to the ultra-wealthy is difficult. I’m a Yale professor, and the Yale name carries a lot of weight in elite circles. I was also born in Wyoming, and this Western identity plays well in Teton County, where a lot of the ultra-wealthy live at least for part of a year. I approached the ultra-wealthy by chatting about their love of the area, benign topics that anyone enjoys talking about: Where do you like to go hiking? What do you like about the wilderness?
I also promised them anonymity. I was genuinely interested in doing an academic study that sought to be accurate and impartial about the superrich. I think they trusted me.