Lauren Greenfield's "Generation Wealth" is a painstakingly detailed visual history of a culture in decadent decline
“Wealth is whatever gives us value.” This phrase is uttered early on and repeated multiple times throughout Generation Wealth, documentarian and photographer Lauren Greenfield’s sprawling yet incisive anthropological examination of our cultural epidemic of excess. Along with a monolithic hard-bound volume of photographs released in 2017, the film, out July 20th, is a sort of capstone to a decades-long multimedia project exploring “the influence of affluence” from the Emmy award-winning photographer and filmmaker.
Over the past 25 years, Greenfield has relentlessly trained her lens on the various strains of our society’s multi-faceted relationship with wealth, status, image, and celebrity, chronicling the dawning evolution of a barren cultural landscape consumed by capitalism, materialism, and a seemingly insatiable desire for more. In that time she has photographed and interviewed porn stars and rappers and CEOs, toddlers in tiaras and trophy wives, bored Beverly Hills teenagers and middle aged working class women addicted to plastic surgery, her work emerging as a painstakingly detailed visual history of a culture in decadent decline.
“What I had seen and documented was what had happened over the past 25 years, but I realized that the pictures were also evidence of a sea change in our culture, and for me to be able to explain that historically, I felt like I needed to do it in a film,” Greenfield explains. “For me, the work is about how we're all complicit in “Generation Wealth,” in terms of how our values have changed. I think with a photograph, you can just say, ‘That’s them, that’s not me,’ but hopefully with a film, people are forced to recognize themselves,” Greenfield explains, sitting cross-legged in her sun-soaked Venice office space. We’re a few breezy blocks from the Pacific and not far from where she grew up, worlds away from her classmates’ oversized mansions in the Palisades. Despite the dark scope of her subject matter, Greenfield is a warm and inquisitive presence. She laughs easily. Her answers are thoughtful and her delight genuine when I mention moments from her films that have stuck with me.
Her work has always skewed intense and immersive, embodying the arresting and revelatory energy of cinéma vérité, seeking the grotesqueness embedded within the glamour. (“I’m always looking for the moment behind the moment.”) Her first documentary, Thin, is a profound and unsettling expedition into the psyche of eating disorders and female body image. Her last film, The Queen of Versailles, depicts the devastation of the 2008 economic collapse through the microcosm of David and Jackie Siegel, two Floridian millionaires who are forced to edit their personal American dream—constructing the largest home in America, a gargantuan and gaudy palace modeled after Versailles—when their timeshare company begins hemorrhaging money.
Generation Wealth, which came to fruition during a deep dive into Greenfield’s extensive archives while she was compiling her monolithic 2017 book of the same name, furthers her inquiry into the harrowing and at times heartbreaking human cost of wealth and its trappings, skillfully weaving her seemingly disparate areas of study into an immersive and visceral portrait of a society on the precipice of Dionysian decline. “I started out thinking this was going to be a project about wealth and money, but then as I got into it, I started seeing other threads connecting the work—gender and fame and aging, for instance. By the end of it I had gone through more than half a million pictures,” she sighs, recalling the labor involved.
“Just to make it really clear: this is not a story about money. This is not a story about the 1%. This affects everyone. It was really powerful for me to learn that 75% of women who get plastic surgery make $50,000 a year or less. People are going into debt for these things that they feel are so important because they give them value.” Equal parts scorching indictment, apocalyptic prophecy, and nudging wake-up call, Generation Wealth offers an unflinching yet sympathetic look at a culture that has lost itself amidst the endless, frenzied pursuit of an American dream warped and bloated beyond recognition (“the golden hamster wheel,” as one of her subjects puts it).
In her attempt to unravel how we got here, where we’re headed, and why she feels continually compelled to document it, Greenfield takes an unusual tack, one that imbues the whip-smart documentary with an unexpectedly intimate heartbeat: she turns the camera on herself and her family.
“I was not planning on doing that from the beginning. It came out very organically. I felt like I had to be somewhere in there as the connective tissue. I also felt like I needed to be a little more transparent about my role in the work and why I do it. I realized that a lot of the work was inspired by my own personal experiences growing up in Los Angeles and feeling like an outsider,” Greenfield tells me. “As I got older, different things would hit me. When I was in my late twenties, a dermatologist offered me Botox, and that got me thinking about the pressures of aging, particularly for women in the culture, and how there’s this huge anti-aging industry. It’s another way that it’s not ok to be yourself. Then when I had kids I went from having the point of view of the young person in the photo to having the point of view of the parent. I wanted to show where the interpretation of what I was seeing came from.”
She quietly places her own story amidst intimate interviews with her larger than life subjects, many of whom she has known for decades. There’s Courtney, a well-known adult film star whose drug-fueled bender with Charlie Sheen and the ensuing media circus sent her down a rabbit hole of eating disorders, addictions, and suicide attempts, resulting in two different reinventions of her face and body; Suzanne, a highly driven and successful investment banker who sacrificed having a family in order get ahead in a male-dominated career, who now blows through her money obsessively searching for a surrogate to give her the baby her body can no longer provide; and the arrogant and cartoonish Florian, Greenfield’s cigar-chomping former classmate at Harvard, who made millions as a hedge fund manager before landing on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for investment fraud and fleeing to Germany. Florian’s story in particular resonated with Greenfield. “He was talking about being on 300 phone calls a day and the cost it had with his family, and I kept thinking about how far away I was from my own family as I pursued this project, trying to connect with my kids on Facetime. When he talked about work being an addiction, it made me think about my own relationship to it.”
It’s a poignant juxtaposition. Greenfield examines her own life with the same unflinching commitment to truth that she applies to her subjects. We witness her struggle to communicate with her two sons as she travels on location, and watch her confront her own mother about the hereditary nature of her obsessive work ethic. “I hadn’t talked to my mom or Noah [her oldest son] off-camera about the stuff we talked about in the film. In my photography and filmmaking I’m always interested in the decisive moment. Some of those conversations that were so revelatory and that changed our relationship would not have happened off-camera. It forced me to look at things that are sometimes easier to look away from.” The interviews with her family act as generational bookends, reminding us of the insidious ways this culture of compulsive aspiration infiltrates the everyday lives of normal people, reaching far beyond the glitz and glamour of the gluttonously wealthy.
Generation Wealth leaves no taboo unexamined, but the film’s no-holds-barred commentary on modern womanhood and the experience of growing up female is particularly gut-wrenching. Greenfield approaches the topic with a masterful subtlety, introducing us to subjects on opposite ends of the spectrum, like Eden, a preening six-year-old pageant princess with a taste for luxury and a face full of makeup, and Cathy, a middle-aged woman whose obsessive desire for the perfect body compels her to travel to Brazil for plastic surgery without general anesthesia, because she feels she can’t be a good mother to her teenage daughter without first resolving her own body image issues. “Women can, in a way, relate to the film more deeply,” explains Greenfield. “One of the reasons I wanted to make the film is because I was looking at the commodification of women in a lot of different ways, but I really wanted to show the continuum of how we start as little girls who are taught that our value comes from our bodies. And then you get older and you have to deal with the loss of that sexuality and that beauty and that body and the kind of Draconian measures that people undertake to protect that. What used to be a luxury is now considered a necessity, to the point where you will borrow money at high interest rates with devastating consequences to make that happen.” She pauses for a moment before continuing. “I don’t want to say that this is a story about women—I more want to say this is a case study for how capitalism exploits our insecurities. As Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges says, capitalism will take you to exhaustion, and to collapse. It’s not just about women. It’s about people of color, young people, old people. Anybody with any kind of vulnerability or insecurity is a perfect target.”
Generation Wealth veers towards the apocalyptic more than once, with the idea of collapse, both on the individual and cultural level, serving as its catalyst. “It’s kind of like the end of Rome. The pyramids were built at the moment of precipitous Egyptian decline. And that’s what always happens: society accrues the greatest wealth at the moment that they face death,” summarizes Hedges, who functions as the film’s lone talking head and resident doom-monger. I ask Greenfield point-blank if she believes we are headed for the end. She responds almost immediately: “I think all of the signs point to us going faster and faster on the hamster wheel towards a devastating place. Look at suicide rates and the way we’re addicted to a technology that is isolating us. But I think there’s also the possibility of seeing the Matrix that we’re in and making a change. Maybe it took going into the Trumpian universe to choose a different path. I’m an optimist and I hope I left some hope in the end of the film, but that hope is also juxtaposed against dangerous forces that we need to be conscious of. There is a sense that we need to wake up.”
Trump is a strange and shimmering apparition throughout the film. He is spliced in a few times but rarely mentioned, yet it is hard to watch Generation Wealth without thinking of him. “Trump is an expression of the pathology of ‘Generation Wealth,’” Greenfield posits. “When Trump was elected, we had to realize that this is us. It was no longer something where the cultural elite can say, ‘Oh, we don’t care about reality TV.’ It’s infiltrated. We have Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump posing in the White House and it looks like an ad for my movie.”
Yet for all the compelling arguments Generation Wealth lays out for why the end is nigh, the film finds itself ripe with reckoning and self-reflection, with many of its subjects stumbling upon some form of redemption, however small. Exiled hedge fund manager Florian provides the film with its most poignant narrative arc, evolving from a blustering caricature of arrogance to someone remorseful and isolated, seeking redemption wherever he can find it. “I felt like we could learn so much from him because all he cared about was getting more money, and he learned the hard way that that’s not what mattered to him. What we end up with is the most cliché story in the book—money doesn’t buy you happiness and money doesn’t buy you love—but to hear it from him, this man of bravado and ego puffing on a cigar, was so powerful.”
Every boom has its bust, and as we hurtle towards the inevitable collapse wrought by our addiction to excess, obsession with image, and inability to see our own intrinsic value, Greenfield offers solace in the form of perspective, the kind that feels straight out of an AA meeting: “What I wanted to get across was that, in all these crashes—the financial crash and all these terrible personal crashes— there was also hope, because in that rock bottom moment of addiction there is this possibility for change or recovery or agency. Not just doing what we’re conditioned to do, but saying, ‘I want something different.’”
She cites Iceland’s plummeting financial crash of 2008 as a prescient example, the magnitude of which precipitated the country’s return to an economy based on their natural resources. “Iceland was so inspirational because their crash was so bad and they weren’t able to bail themselves out like we did. They lost everything, and yet when that happened it forced them to think about who they wanted to be as a country and as a people. They ended up going back to the environment and back to natural resources. They spent more time with family. There was a study done
that showed that kids were actually happier after the crash because they were spending more time with their family. When I started this, I didn’t feel like I was going to have any personal narrative arc, but near the end I did feel like I had my own unexpected awakening. I’m very conscious of time passing now.” Ultimately, Greenfield seems to be saying, redemption comes at a price: the only way out is through, and the only place we can reckon with what we’ve become is by hitting rock bottom. That’s where hope shines through the cracks in the darkness. That’s where it’s quiet enough to imagine a different world.
Written by Alison Green
Hair & Makeup: Mikayla Gottlieb at Opus Beauty