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The Cult of the Millionaire

The appeal of 'reality' millionaire shows is growing.

Everyone wants to be rich. If you're not a millionaire, at the very least you want to be closer to those who are -- perhaps this is the reasoning behind the explosion of millionaire-themed shows.

Some of

Bravo's

latest reality show offerings are "The Millionaire Matchmaker," which centers around Patti Stanger, a matchmaker for wealthy singles; "Million Dollar Listing," which follows the volatile deals of luxury real-estate agents; "Flipping Out," which focuses on a high-end real estate developer; and "First Class All the Way," which zooms in on the demands of an elite travel-concierge company.

Myriad media deal either directly or indirectly with excessive amounts of money, says Joan DiFuria, co-founder of the

Money, Meaning & Choices Institute, which was established to help people handle the psychological opportunities and challenges that accompany great wealth.

Reality show

Joe Millionaire

fooled women into believing that they were going to marry a millionaire; TV game shows such as

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

and

Chain Reaction

also hold the lure of only-dreamed-of riches. Similar Web offerings, including

The Next Internet Millionaire

, which debuted a few weeks ago, take the concept online.

So why the continued obsession with millionaires?

"There is an increase of younger people making money faster than they expected to make in their entire lifetime," says DiFuria. The old standard was a lifetime of hard work and saving leading to financial security. In the past few decades and through the dot-com era, however, headlines have focused on people walking out of companies such as

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

,

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

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and even YouTube at the right time with millions in their pockets, she says.

But even though that's certainly not the case for most people, reality TV shows enforce this idea by encouraging the millionaire fantasy.

As New York-based licensed social worker Andrea Klann points out, "It's the media that says this wealth is attainable. It's not literally more attainable. The average American in the rest of the country isn't even close to being a millionaire and can't imagine what it would be like to have access to the funds

featured in these shows."

"The fantasy skips over the normal prerequisite of achievement," Klann continues.

And as DiFuria says, buying into this fantasy often involves thinking that money will solve all your problems. Millionaires still have their own set of problems, however; no amount of money can necessarily cure depression or a sick child, DiFuria points out.

Gilded Voyeurism

In

Bravo's

"The Millionaire Matchmaker," viewers are taken into Stanger's world as she transforms millionaire bachelors through her team of personal shoppers, interior designers, therapists and date coaches. She finds potentially compatible women for a fee of $25,000 to $500,000, depending on the extent of the search, and sends the couple out on a date.

This show plays into the fantasy of the knight in shining armor, says DiFuria.

Why the fascination with millionaire men? Lisa Johnson, author of

How to Snare a Millionaire

, believes "it goes back to the cavemen. Women were enticed to mate with the best hunter, and men were attracted to the healthiest ... women." Today, Johnson maintains, prowess is demonstrated by a man's workplace performance -- and his subsequent net worth.

Even Jeff Lewis, the star of "Flipping Out," admits to a fascination with millionaire's lives. "I still catch myself watching these lifestyle programs to see how the ultra wealthy and celebrities live; it's fascinating," says Lewis.

Lewis, 37, is a successful real-estate broker, who grew up in an upper middle-class family in Orange County, Calif., and bought his first property when he was 18 years old. He ended up losing money on that deal, "but I had another try when I was 24, which was a winner, and I ended up making $35,000," Lewis recounts.

"Flipping Out" follows Lewis through every step of his current business dealings as he attempts to balance the purchase, refurbishment and sale of multimillion-dollar houses in the Los Angeles area.

Why the focus on high-end property? "I was drawn to the higher-end market for two reasons: ... the larger profit margins

and the increased construction budgets that allow me to be more creative and explore the use of different materials and finishes," says Lewis.

Ultimately, Lewis has stayed in the high-pressure, high-stakes real-estate business because "I can make as much as I want," he says. Financial security, he believes, is the American Dream, so it's not surprising that following his workday is intriguing to many viewers.

"Certainly, one of my main goals in this business is to provide myself financial security. I would prefer to maintain my present lifestyle as I grow older. We all have different needs and different standards of living. I have spent most of my adult life worrying about money; I don't want to worry anymore," says Lewis.

So what's the future for this trend of millionaire shows? "I'm not sure, but people love the shows. We're all wannabes. It shows a hope that we, too, can make enough money by winning the lottery," says DiFuria.

In other words, these viewers don't want to work for it.