Real Life

The billionaires who were swindled out of their fortunes

The ultimate betrayal.

On the first anniversary of Gina Lollobrigida’s death last year, a memorial mass was held in the village of Subiaco, 50 kilometres east of Rome, where the celebrated actress and beauty was born and now lies buried. Among the congregation were Gina’s son, Milko, her ex-husband, Javier, a cluster of old friends from the film and art worlds, and – sitting conspicuously alone at the back of the church – a stubbly-chopped man in a threadbare sweater, who left before the end. 

“I couldn’t stay,” said Andrea Piazzolla, Gina’s 36-year-old former personal assistant. “They were never there for her, and now they come to church and sit in the front row to mourn her. I don’t want to be in that situation. I prefer to experience my pain somewhere else.” 

What Piazzolla didn’t mention was that the “somewhere else” is likely to be a prison cell. 

Last November, the former handyman was convicted of stealing a large portion of Gina’s $30 million fortune, and given a three-year jail sentence, with further charges still to be heard. He is currently free, pending an appeal, and using the opportunity to persuade Gina’s vast army of Italian fans that he is the only person who truly loved and understood her. 

Exploited billionaire Gina Lollobrigida.
Gina, aged 95, said Piazzolla was like a son to her.

Hailed in her movie-star heyday as the world’s most beautiful woman, Gina was known to her fans as simply ‘La Lollo’ – a voluptuous country girl, exuding what critics described as a “wholesome lustiness”, who went on to star with such Hollywood greats as Rock Hudson, Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Her death in January 2023, at the age of 95, triggered a worldwide wave of tributes, and her funeral was attended by Italy’s prime minister and senior Vatican officials. 

The real shock came later when it emerged that when she died she was almost penniless.

Among her other qualities, Gina had a shrewd financial mind, and over many years invested her earnings in fine art, jewellery and property. Yet at the time of her death, virtually everything she owned had vanished. According to court papers, such pitiful possessions as remained included a porcelain dinner service “of no appreciable value”, some “worthless” antique cherubs, a few paintings “of mediocre quality” and three elderly fur coats. Her grand villa in Rome, apartment in Monte Carlo, jewels, artworks and career souvenirs had all been sold, and the proceeds apparently laundered through a bank in Panama. 

Investigators soon began looking into the role of Piazzolla, who had first gone to work for Gina in 2009. Handsome and smooth of manner, the young Italian had spent several years establishing himself as a presence in La Lollo’s life. 

“He is at my side like a son,” she said in one interview. “He is what keeps me going.” 

She went on to complain that her real son, actor Milko, 66, had abandoned her. “He gives me no affectionate support and only wants to take my wealth away from me.” 

Gina Lollobrigida with Rock Hudson.
Actors Rock Hudson as Robert L. Talbot and Gina Lollobrigida as Lisa Helena Fellini in the romantic comedy Come September, 1961.

Yet the estrangement from Milko appears to have happened only as Piazzolla became ever more influential in her life. “This was someone who had never studied, never had a proper job, and lived entirely off other people,” says Gina’s outraged former husband, Javier Rigau. 

“Within 18 months of arriving, he had separated Gina from her son, her grandson, her lawyer, her administrator – everyone she could have trusted. He even got rid of her housekeeper, even though the poor lady was elderly and had a heart problem and nowhere else to live. 

“He then helped himself to everything she owned. He travelled in private jets, bought himself expensive cars, sold the things she loved for far less than they were worth.” 

When her will was opened, Gina had left half her fortune to Milko, and half to Andrea – but when Milko went looking for his share, there was virtually nothing left. 

In September last year, Piazzolla was charged with an offence known in Italian as ‘Circumvenzione di Incapace’ – essentially meaning the exploitation of a person who is too old or mentally incapacitated to protect themselves. 

“It is a scourge,” says prosecutor Eleonora Fini, who led the case against Piazzolla. “In Italy we have a tradition of looking after our elders, but now these cases are more and more common. Gina was a very smart lady, and loved by everyone, but she was basically defenceless.” 

Liliane Bettencourt, L'Oreal heiress who was the world's richest woman.
Liliane Bettencourt was the world’s richest woman at the time of her death in 2017.

In common with many other affluent Western countries, Italy is witnessing a wave of “elder abuse”, driven by a dangerous combination of increasing life expectancy and a dramatic shifting of wealth towards the older generation. In the US alone, over the next 20 to 30 years, an astounding $30 trillion of assets held by baby boomers is due to be passed on, much of it in the form of homes and possessions that the boomers’ children couldn’t otherwise afford. 

But these longer lives can be an expensive proposition, with medical and care costs devouring the very wealth that would previously have trickled down the family tree. Probate lawyers have coined the expression “inheritance impatience” for the resulting phenomenon. 

“The sorry fact is,” says Michael Hackard, a veteran California estate planner, “that sometimes the kids, or anyone else with an interest, don’t want to wait.” 

When the victim is a celebrity, or from the ranks of the super-rich – like Liliane Bettencourt, the world’s richest woman when she died in 2017 – everyone takes notice. Netflix might make a blockbuster three-part series about you, books will be written and governments shudder amid the fallout. But if not … 

“Usually, it’s not difficult to get away with,” says Michael. 

Liliane, heiress to the giant L’Oréal perfume and cosmetics business, with a personal fortune of $65 billion, reigned for decades as the doyenne of French high society. From the grand mansion on the outskirts of Paris where she lived with her politician husband, André, she gave generously to many causes, especially in the arts. But as she grew older, and increasingly confused, she fell under the spell of a flamboyant French novelist and fashion photographer-about-town called François-Marie Banier. 

The world's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt and François Marie Banier who was found to be exploiting the her.
François Marie Banier was exploiting billionaire Liliane Bettencourt when she fell under his spell.

While only a moderate professional success, Banier was possessed of a magical personality, and seemed to know everyone in the worlds of fashion, literature and art. By the time they met, says Liliane’s biographer Tom Sancton, she was lonely, unfulfilled, “immensely wealthy and immensely unhappy”. 

Banier introduced her to the likes of designer Yves Saint Laurent, artist Salvador Dalí and playwright Samuel Beckett, tirelessly entertaining her with his clever conversation. 

In a letter to him, she wrote: “With you I am like a mother, a lover, all the feelings pass through me. It makes me tremble.” 

By then, Liliane was entering her nineties and in steadily declining health. There was no romance between them – Banier was gay and 25 years younger – but on Mme Bettencourt’s part, at least, there was unquestionably passion. 

It was Liliane’s daughter, Françoise, who blew the whistle. 

The Bettencourts’ only child (now herself the world’s richest woman with a fortune swollen to $160 billion) had a difficult relationship with her mother, compounded by her belief that, behind the swirl and dazzle of his personality, Banier was a conman. 

In 2007, shortly after her father’s death, Françoise sued Banier claiming ‘abus de faiblesse’ – exploitation of a vulnerable person – and a torrid tale that grips France to this day began to unfold. 

A police investigation discovered that Liliane had given Banier ‘gifts’ totalling around $2.25 billion, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse. It also unearthed evidence of large, illegal payments to conservative politicians of Banier’s acquaintance, including Nicolas Sarkozy, who later became France’s president. 

Andre and Liliane Bettencourt, the world's richest woman.
Liliane Bettencourt with her husband Andre.

So complex was the investigation that it was 10 years before Banier was finally sent for trial. Prosecutor Gérard Aldigé told the court he had “imposed his control over Mme Bettencourt like a spider spinning its web. And once he had her in his net, he never let her go. She became his thing. He fed off her like a vampire.” Handed a 30-month jail sentence and ordered to pay $200 million back to the Bettencourt estate, Banier launched a series of appeals, and is yet to spend a night a prison. 

Conmen have always targeted vulnerable women – the older and richer the better – but investigators increasingly find the perpetrators coming from positions of trust, often within the victim’s family. A study by the British charity Age UK found that over 70 per cent of financial abuse is now carried out by family members, with almost 50 per cent by adult children against their own parents. 

Last year the then Australian Age Discrimination Commissioner, Kay Patterson, called for an urgent updating of protections for the elderly, warning that abuse case numbers were rising rapidly. “We’re dragging our heels,” she said. “The attorneys-general across Australia all say, ‘Yes, it’s a good idea,’ but it’s very, very slow – it’s moving at a glacial pace.” 

The post-pandemic world, says UK lawyer Sarah Young, a specialist in the field, “has created a ‘perfect storm’ for swindlers, wherein many elderly people are living in isolated circumstances and dependant on a very small number of people.” 

A new biography of the legendary New York society hostess, Brooke Astor, gives a harrowing account of what can happen to even the most refined and redoubtable of women as age and infirmity set in, and greed consumes those supposed to look after them. An irresistible blend of taste and toughness, Brooke once saw off a mugger, saying: “I am Mrs Astor. I do not believe we have been introduced.” She reigned over the city’s gilded set, throwing famous parties at her grand Park Avenue apartment, and showering money on fashionable causes. 

Exploited billionaire Brooke Astor.
Brook Astor was exploited by her son and denied access to basic items.

But as she aged, and the brilliance of her salon dwindled, her life took a dramatic turn for her worse. 

It transpired that her son, Anthony, with whom she had a strained relationship, had taken effective control of her affairs. Suddenly none of her old friends could see Brooke, the parties stopped and the regular donations she made dried up. 

It wasn’t until Anthony’s own son, Philip, took his father to court, alleging that the now 100-year-old socialite was being mistreated, that the truth began to emerge. His grandmother was, Philip alleged in a witness statement, “forced to sleep in the TV room in torn nightgowns on a filthy couch that smells, probably of dog urine”. 

He claimed that the old lady, renowned in her prime for her perfect maquillage, had been deprived of her Estée Lauder face cream and forced to use Vaseline instead. Her long-serving French chef had been fired, her household staff cut back, and her regular medicines replaced by cheap generics bought online. The lavish bouquets of fresh flowers that had filled her apartment had likewise given way to cheap bunches bought from a nearby Korean grocery store, and her beloved dogs, Boysie and Girlsie, spent most of their days locked up in a pantry to stop them damaging the furniture. 

Anthony was sentenced to three years’ jail in 2010, after disinheriting Philip, who received a token $1 million from his grandmother’s estate. Today, Philip runs an organisation, Beyond Brooke, that campaigns against elder abuse. 

Brooke Astor's luxurious apartment.
Brooke Astor’s luxury apartment.

“We are basically fighting a war against people who exploit the elderly,” he says, from his office north of New York. “I implore everyone to be vigilant. If we ignore it, we are complicit. If I had my grandmother’s case again, I wouldn’t have tried to settle it privately. My advice would be to go straight to the police.” 

Yet experts warn against the assumption that age and infirmity in themselves make wealthy women easy targets for swindlers. 

“In many cases,” says author Maria Konnikova, who wrote about con artists in The Confidence Game, “it can be the sense that you are rich and powerful that make you vulnerable. It gives you a false sense of security, so when you find someone you think you can trust, you tend to trust them completely.” 

She points to the famous case of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, the original ‘poor little rich girl’ whose seven-strong tally of husbands included two princes, a count, a baron, an ambassador and a Hollywood actor, many of whom helped themselves to hefty chunks of her wealth. As did the lawyer she had hired to protect her from fortune hunters. 

Shortly before her death in 1979, Barbara reflected: “I won’t say that my husbands thought only of my money, but it certainly held a fascination for them.”

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