<p></p>

THERE has never been more of them and they've never been worth so much. They are younger, more vocal, and in more of a hurry than ever. And they're throwing their weight around in politics, in the sporting arena and in the courts.

Until recently, Australia's ranks of billionaires were populated by old-world businessmen who had made - or inherited - their fortunes primarily from media, property, retail and real estate.

The likes of Frank Lowy, Kerry Packer, Bruce Gordon, Solomon Lew and Harry Triguboff spent their lives building and growing their fortunes.

<p></p>

But the mining boom has delivered a fresh injection of uber-wealth. At last count there were 35 billionaires in Australia. Mining magnates now rank second only to property billionaires.

Australia's mega-rich are rolling in it. Iron ore magnate Gina Rinehart, Australia's richest person with a personal fortune estimated to be not far shy of $20 billion, earned so much last year her annual income topped a list of what others have spent a lifetime accumulating.

But something's bothering our billionaires. Australia's wealthiest citizens can't stay out of the news - and for all the wrong reasons: family stoushes in court, scrapes with the government, blues with sporting organisations and shareholders.

From retailer Gerry Harvey demanding a fair go against GST-free imports, to coal baron Nathan Tinkler saving and abandoning Newcastle's soccer fans, to Rinehart trying to suppress coverage of a court fight with her children, our billionaires are a seemingly disgruntled bunch.

Some face pressure from technology which threatens to destroy their work and legacy. Others are battling to keep what they've inherited. And there are those trying to make hay while the sun shines now before the good times end.

Veteran finance writer Trevor Sykes has seen generations of millionaires and billionaires come and go and says it all boils down to one thing. ''They are trying to make as much as they can while things last, and they'd really like the government to get out of their bloody road,'' he says.

Economic and political uncertainty is frustrating decision-making at the big end of town, he says, citing business concerns about the Gillard government.

''I've found that over the decades I've been watching businessmen, they can live with pretty well any sort of a fiscal regime as long as it's constant and they know that it's going to be the same in a few years' time.

''It doesn't matter if you've got $100 or $100 million, if someone's threatening to take some of it away from you, you yelp and cry because you think you're poor.''

The motivation of the rich has long been a topic of interest to psychologists. Dr Paul Wachtel, a professor of psychology at the City College of New York, published a landmark paper a decade ago called ''Full Pockets, Empty Lives'', in the American Journal of Psychoanalysis.

His research found one of the great pitfalls of the wealthy is a compulsion to continue to accumulate even more. ''The pursuit of money and material goods as a central aim in life comes at a rather high price,'' he wrote, noting that money plays ''a strikingly small role'' in a person's real happiness or wellbeing.

In fact, intimacy and family life are often sacrificed. Envy feeds the greed impulse, argues Wachtel: ''We may want not just what others have but more than others have, or more for more's sake.''

The super-rich are seen to take their wealth accumulation very personally, with their view of their self-worth apparently characterised through their achievements.

Promoting a biography of James Packer in 2009, author Paul Barry detailed research about the motivation of the third-generation mogul who was at a low point in his life. Packer had reportedly lost millions, was selling assets and his Macau gaming venture was on the rocks.

Packer had put on weight and become something of a recluse.

''He's after making more money than his father, simple as that … it's how the Packers keep score,'' Barry said.

The stakes for our billionaires are self-evidently high.

Some have rolled the dice and gambled their way to the top, using debt piled on debt, relying on asset revaluations and the continuation of the China boom for the next big deal.

Some are trying to protect their privacy or derail scrutiny of their family affairs.

Australia's fifth-richest person, with a fortune of more than $5 billion, the mining magnate Clive Palmer, has emerged as a walking headline, this week blithely announcing within hours that he would not only run for preselection for the Liberal National Party in Treasurer Wayne Swan's Brisbane seat of Lilley, but that he would also build Titanic II.

That was a few weeks after making bizarre claims that the CIA was backing green groups in a bid to kill the Australian coalmining industry. Jovial it may be on the surface, but Palmer has been engaged in constant spats with the government, football authorities and business partners.

Palmer, who bought a soccer team in China to raise his profile, also owned Gold Coast United, running foul of the sport's authorities before Football Federation Australia withdrew its licence.

Palmer has launched an $8 billion lawsuit against rail company QR National for interfering with his coal haulage plans. He has been in a spat in his property investments including the Coolum resort in Queensland, terminating the management agreement with the Hyatt group and calling in administrators.

A spokesman for Palmer said the billionaire was ''using his voice to voice his opinion, as anyone should be able to. He's just fortunate his voice is heard.'' Asked if it was his status that ensured it was heard, the spokesman said: ''He's just a normal human being who's heard, but it's taken many years to have that happen.''

Questions have been asked of Andrew Forrest every step of the way as he built iron ore miner Fortescue Metals.

Valued today at $6 billion, Forrest has variously faced claims of too much debt, questionable contracts, no rail lines and attempts from the corporate regulator to ban him as a director for misleading investors.

Forrest has been leading the charge against the government's mining tax, describing it variously as ''unfair'', a ''charade'' and ''unjustifiable''.

He was at it again this week at the National Press Club, banging the drum about its threat to the mining industry. Oddly, he has argued simultaneously that Fortescue could conceivably pay zero tax under the plan, yet he will take action in the High Court to stop it.

Just as Forrest thought he had seen off moves by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to have him banned as a company director, American hedge fund boss and short-seller Jim Chanos revealed he had taken a short position against Fortescue, betting that Fortescue's share price will fall ''materially''.

Chanos, who exposed accounting giant Enron as a fraud and famously bet on Macquarie Bank having to unwind its infrastructure model, used Fortescue as his global example of a company exposed to the iron ore rush. Fortescue, he says, has a ''promotional management team''.

Chanos may have been talking his own book, but his argument rings true with many.

Iron ore prices are well above their historical average, Fortescue is loaded with debt and any fall back to historical averages would see Fortescue under pressure to repay.

Chanos argues that Fortescue needs the iron ore boom to keep prices above $100 a tonne to pay down debt. Forrest replied that China had managed its growth well and he was confident of iron ore prices remaining above $100 a tonne.

Named Australia's richest man aged under 40 last year by BRW magazine, coal magnate Nathan Tinkler is perhaps the best example of a young billionaire in a rush, with the former mining electrician famously hocking his earthly goods and borrowing what he could to turn $1 million into more than $1 billion in a matter of years.

Tinkler's achievements are noteworthy if only because for a coal baron, he has not sold a tonne of coal from a working mine. In fact, few of his business interests - from infrastructure and property development to thoroughbreds and football - generate cash flow.

The pressure to keep one step ahead of the bankers is a powerful motivation.

Tinkler has seemingly enjoyed his rise to the top, investing in passions such as horse racing and buying his home-town rugby league and soccer teams, the Newcastle Knights and Newcastle Jets.

While last month he was celebrating a $1 billion deal with the merger of Aston Resources and Whitehaven, it was an outburst that saw him walk out on the Jets that attracted headlines.

Following talk of a $50 million lawsuit and talks with fellow billionaire and Football Federation Australia chairman Frank Lowy, Tinkler returned to the Jets.

Tinkler has not enjoyed scrutiny of his activities, and is known for a sharp tongue, as delivered to a reporter last year when declining to answer questions.

''You're a f---ing deadbeat. People like me don't bother with f---ing you. You climb out of your bed every morning for your pathetic hundred grand a year - good luck.''

In converting the deal of a lifetime last month to secure the largest share in the merged Whitehaven entity, Tinkler now has the largest stake in a mine producing coal with which to generate cash flow.

With a fortune of more than $17 billion, Gina Rinehart's riches are unparalleled in Australia. As her wealth has ballooned, so has her influence. She has bought stakes in media companies, including Ten Network and Fairfax Media, owner of The Age.

But it is a court case against her children, telling them they faced bankruptcy unless she retained full control of a family trust, that has garnered more attention than any mining activities.

In particular, Rinehart's lawyers sought suppression orders stopping the media publishing aspects of the family dispute. Rinehart's lawyers claimed the family faced ''safety risks'' from criminals and terrorists if a secrecy order was lifted. She lost.

Rag trade billionaire Solomon Lew also attempted to have suppressed details of his legal fight against his children's former spouses, with counsel claiming reportage of his activities had made him look like an ''greedy ogre''.

Author Trevor Sykes is critical about billionaires using the courts in such a manner.

''They are trying to say, 'We … are special','' says Sykes.

''I haven't seen that sort of suppression attempted before.''

Gerry Harvey is perhaps the best example of an old-world mogul whose life work is under threat. Harvey's traditional bricks-and-mortar retail business model has been exposed by the advent of online shopping.

Harvey, valued at $1.4 billion, did little to endear himself when he fronted a campaign asking the government for a level playing field that would stop shoppers buying goods online from overseas that could be imported GST free.

With his fortunes rebounding over the past few years and his Macau operations finally profitable, James Packer, valued at $4.2 billion, is keen to tap into the booming Chinese middle class to visit his gaming operations in Australia.

But he is unimpressed with the state of tourism infrastructure, calling for fresh investment to make areas such as the Great Barrier Reef more desirable.

''The experience for a well-travelled tourist is you arrive in Cairns, where the beach is unfortunately a mud flat, you go out to the reef on a hydrofoil that looks like it needs some money spent on it, you dive into the water and where the pontoon is located the reef looks like it is dying,'' he said last year.

''You come back up and you are meant to say, 'Isn't this amazing'. It could be an amazing, world-class experience, but we need to get our act together.''

As society evolves, so do perceptions of the wealthy. Arguments around income inequality and the Occupy movement are hot topics.

William Rubinstein's book The All-Time Australian 200 Rich List details shifts in wealth in Australia since the end of the Second World War.

Rubinstein's work, highlighted in an address to the Sydney Institute this week by Labor MP Andrew Leigh, showed that from 1940 to 1980, nobody was wealthy enough to make the all-time rich list.

''So markedly different were trends among the very rich compared with those for society as a whole that the postwar period seemed to constitute, as it were, an age of affluence for everyone except the very affluent,'' Rubinstein wrote.

But from 1980, inequality began to rise - the income share of the richest 1 per cent (those today with incomes of more than $200,000 a year) doubled, while the share of the top 0.1 per cent (incomes above $700,000) tripled.

''After being largely absent from Australian life for four decades, we saw the return of the magnate,'' Leigh said.

The magnates' return and their adoption in some cases of megaphone diplomacy has led some to call on the ''privileged few'' to step back.

Tony Maher, national president of the CFMEU mining and energy division, this week called on billionaire miners to ''shut up''.

''I think they take themselves too seriously. I think they're very self-absorbed. They're entitled to a view - it would be terrific if it was proportionate.''