NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The unflattering Hollywood movie portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network was the biggest winner at the box office over the weekend. It seems America likes seeing their billionaires being given the thumbs down. But it's not just Zuckerberg who is coming in for some billionaire criticism.

Facebook's Zuckerberg has been in the news of late, and not just because of the unflattering celluloid portrait provided by The Social Network. Zuckerberg also recently made the list of the richest Americans, the Forbes 400. At No. 35 on the Forbes 400, Zuckerberg passed old media tycoon Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. ( NWSA).


All that sudden social media wealth was a problem for Zuckerberg, and with the Forbes list making his wealth prominent and The Social Network making his road to acquiring that wealth a subject of controversy, Zuckerberg launched himself into the world of billionaire giving.

On the same day that the Forbes 400 was revealed, and a week before America became a fan of the The Social Network, Zuckerberg announced a $100 million donation to Newark's public school system. Zuckerberg didn't play the part of the big-hearted billionaire in quiet, but with media fanfare, appearing on Oprah to announce the donation.

Zuckerberg's two-sided public face -- one the negative movie profile and the other the glowing angle offered by the Facebook founder's philanthropic giving -- posed an old question about the big-hearted billionaires.

Are the charitable aims of the world's richest individuals a true sign of generosity or a sloughing off the immense guilt that comes with extracting such an outsized percentage of global income?

In the least, is billionaire giving to be taken at face value as coming from big-hearted individuals regardless of the bigness of wallet, or are gifts the likes of which Facebook's Zuckerberg made merely an attempt to curry favor with the public?


Zuckerberg may be the king of the silver screen, much to his chagrin, as well as the king of the new world of social media, but he is nowhere near the American king of big-hearted billionaire giving. Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.B) and Bill Gates of Microsoft ( MSFT) just haven't written a big check to a public school system and flashed the check on daytime television.

Buffett and Gates have been busy all year lining up billionaires for their GivingPledge, a program in which billionaires around the world pledge a majority of their wealth to charity. Buffett and Gates haven't been on Oprah, but last week they did make a media tour of China ahead of a private dinner with China's billionaire set.


Gates and Buffett prefer to work their charity drive behind the scenes, to an extent. Buffett also took part in a video interview on the Forbes web site concurrent with the release of this year's Forbes 400, in which the Oracle of Omaha sat down for a conversation with Jay-Z about success and charitable giving. It may not have been Oprah, but a cynic might have found plenty of reason to feel nauseous watching this video event.

Gates and Buffett are the two richest Americans and that inevitably leads to questions about their charitable giving program. Is it possible to distinguish between the good heart of an individual at any income level and the fact that the individual's income level may be a ludicrous percentage of a national average? Buffett himself has said in the past that the average Joe who donates $5 that he could otherwise spend on a movie to his church is the true big-hearted individual -- and that sounds good, doesn't it?

People aren't buying it. At a time when the latest U.S. Census Bureau data shows a record (and widening) income inequality in the U.S., it's not just the philanthropy of Facebook's Zuckerberg that is being judged short of the big-hearted mark.

Given the recent light that Buffett and Gates have shined on charity, and the mixed reviews being received by the Facebook founder, we asked readers of TheStreet last week, Do you think the big-hearted billionaires are all heart ... or nothing but show?

The big-hearted billionaire poll results indicate that the public thinks the big billionaire wallets are simply trying to buy a better public image.

Approximately 78% of survey respondents described the charitable giving of the billionaires as "nothing but show." Only 22% of survey takers said the billionaire giving is a sign of "big-hearted" individuals.

If the box office receipts of the The Social Network from its first weekend are any indication, a few things can be said for sure about America and its billionaires: the public is fascinated with the character of the billionaire, but that isn't always a good thing for the billionaire himself. As the poll reveals, even the billions and billions being pledged to charity by the likes of Gates and Buffett can't overcome a skeptical public, especially at a time when much of the public feels like it is falling through the economic cracks.

--Written by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.

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