LATE on Friday evening, the heady smell of new money is addictive in the graceful portals of 10 Sathorn Road, mecca for those who would inherit Thailand's corporate empire. While fawning doormen park the queuing BMWs and Porches, faces that launched a hundred society magazine stories flaunt their wealth amid designer settees and malt whisky. The talk is of billion-dollar condominiums and private golf courses, devised by playboy power-brokers who are barely out of their teens. And the whole of Thailand is watching. ''They are the idle rich of an unequal society. Their fathers toiled to make Thailand a better place, but these people give nothing back to their country. They are just worthless,'' a prominent academic said bitterly. The sons and daughters of one of Asia's great ruling classes drift in sports car cavalcades from nightclub to boutique wine bar in the early morning hours, dismissed contemptuously as kohn jau somran - ''fun people'' - by other Bangkok folk. Educated in expensive private schools in Britain and the US, they are an elite that operate with their own extravagant rules, born into the marketplace but untutored in its mores. ''They spend money like it's going out of fashion, but rarely where it is going to do any good. Some of the risky stock market ventures would take your breath away,'' said a foreign stockbroker. Many are Chinese, but a generation removed from their immigrant forebears, who helped to create the economic boom propelling Thailand into the league of industrialised nations. A few hundred established families are believed to have virtually all the wealth in Thailand, possibly the biggest concentration of economic power of any Asian country. Of these, a much smaller number have a hand in major business deals, controlling banks, development companies and retail outlets. The most prominent are ethnic Chinese, usually descendants of immigrant Chiu Chow from Guangdong, Hainan Island or Shanghai. Others trace their roots back to the Manchu dynasty, when Chinese courtiers were invited to advise the royal Siam court - and stayed. While at least 20 per cent of the population is believed to have Chinese blood, few Thais readily admit the connection. Thailand encountered little of the ethnic upheaval that followed the arrival of Chinese elsewhere in Asia, but there was subtle pressure to assimilate. Most took local names, and resentment over their status has only recently begun to surface. Military leaders privately alluded to the unhealthy level of Chinese economic power when they seized power in a bloodless coup in February 1991, though this was seen as an attack on the business elite rather than its dominant ethnic group. Yet, while they were rarely politicised in the past, Chinese families are now bankrolling moderate factions to protect their financial clout. As economic growth exposes the deep class divisions in Thai society, the role of the rich, especially the Chinese, is increasingly under attack. ''. . . in the urban areas they ride in luxurious imported cars . . . with beggars, street children and prostitutes plying their trade in the same city. ''The poor who are deprived of equal access to opportunities will soon start feeling that their country is being run by Chinese who are indifferent to their plight,'' a columnist warned last month in The Nation, an English-language newspaper. Nearly all the big business families are gathered in Bangkok, which has less than 15 per cent of Thailand's population, but earns 49 per cent of its annual income. The differences between Bangkok and the most impoverished provinces are more pronounced. The average city dweller earns 10 times more than a Thai in the northeast, and 20 times more than its worst district. Even in Bangkok, one in four people lives below the poverty line, which the independent Thai Development Research Institute sets at 115 baht (HK$35) per day. Twenty per cent - 1.3 million - are slum dwellers. ''It's clear that Thai society works for 10 per cent and not for 90 per cent of the population,'' leading social activist Sulak Sivaraksa said recently. The patriarchs of the immense family groups controlling Thailand's wealth often remain aloof, background figures, identified more for their business acumen than their social standing. But not so their offspring. While Hongkong Chinese hide their fortunes in varied holdings and Koreans preach the virtues of discretion and thrift, the young nouveau riche of Thailand have been accused of leaving a paper trail of greed. ''I opened a nightclub because I was bored with all the others. I thought, 'why bother going to other clubs when I can have my own?','' the heir to a Thai-Chinese business consortium said recently. ''If you want to play golf you build a golf course, if you want a condo, you build that too. Isn't that what it's all about?'' Success, often measured in the number of mia nois - minor wives, or mistresses - that a young businessman can acquire, attracts lurid headlines. Wealthy young women, meanwhile, are known to frequent at least two upmarket private clubs in hotels that provide male gigolos on demand. At a wine bar in residential Sukhumvit, a dozen Thais fluent in English and French, acquired from prestigious overseas schools, work as call girls for foreign businessmen. ''They don't need the money, it's just a hobby, to stop them getting too bored. I think they have too much time on their hands,'' said a bemused restaurateur working in the bar. Sales in Bangkok of Porches and Ferraris, the preferred cars for the young set, are the highest in Asia. A host of top-line clubs have sprung up in the past two years to cater for their notoriously fickle taste in nightlife, led by 10 Sathorn, a plush complex in the city's main business district. Developed by the owners of Hongkong's Dynasty Club, it charges up to 500,000 baht (HK$154,000) a membership, and has more than 200 people on its books. And for those who have missed out on Thailand's economic spoils, television soap operas, sandwiched in-between glossy consumer adverts that are out of the reach of most people, daily glamorise the lifestyles of the rich. Dr Mongkol Dandhanin, research director at Kohn Kaen University in northeastern Thailand, charged that using the wealthy as role models was devaluing the contribution of the majority of Thais. ''The new way of thinking has made people worship money. The rich are honourable people, no matter how they became rich,'' he said.