Lauren Greenfield, the photographer and documentarian behind 2012’s Queen of Versailles, says she chronicles extremes in order to learn about the mainstream. In Generation Wealth those extremes include: a Chinese entrepreneur who gives her countrywomen lessons on pronouncing brand names and demonstrations on how to “elegantly” eat a banana with knife and fork; Toddlers and Tiaras star Eden Wood; disgraced, cigar-chomping hedge fund fugitive Florian Homm; women attending a party to buy $50,000 handbags; and various other Kardashian-influenced consumption victims. It’s a rogue’s gallery of grasping grotesques, horrifying yet familiar, and it paints a fairly damning portrait of consumer culture.
Greenfield, who chronicles her own life and career alongside her subjects in Generation Wealth, from private school in Santa Monica to Harvard, where she was a legacy student, comes to the realization that her photography work has always been at some level about wealth and status, even if she never entirely realized it. She returns to some of the subjects in her earliest work: the students at Crossroads in Santa Monica, now in their late 30s and early 40s, doing Where Are They Nows alongside portraits of burgeoning consumption cultures in Russia, where she attends a debutante ball for the children of oligarchs; China, where she meets a businessman who has built a miniature Mount Rushmore in his yard, and Iceland, to see a fisherman who became a banker during the credit boom. She treats consumerism, as she overtly states it, like a contagion, tracing its origin to the US in the late 70s and 80s, and chronicling its outward spread.
This naturally provokes a few key questions for us viewers. Namely, do I already have this brain sickness, and if not, how do I avoid and contain it? “Never send your kids to private school” was one of my takeaways, but Generation Wealth, intentionally, is much more thorough in documenting and analyzing the problem than in offering solutions. One of Greenfield’s strengths as a storyteller is the way she weaves the serious and academic with the kitschy and tacky, a marriage of her work as a serious anthropologist with her upbringing in the belly of the beast. As one of her more academic subjects puts it, societies tend to put on their most extravagant displays of wealth precisely at the moment of their deepest decline. It’s reactionary. Everything that follows then becomes of a piece with conspicuous capitalism’s glitter-encrusted death rattle, both cautionary tale and Greek tragedy.
As in Queen of Versailles, Greenfield’s work is at least as entertaining as it is Important. She has a keen eye for the absurd and applies impeccable comedic timing to her found art. One of her subjects is a Las Vegas “fixer,” who plans bachelor parties and bottle service, brokering commodified women and consulting in all manner of bacchanalia. Greenfield cleverly turns the camera on the fixer’s 21-year-old son, raised in “the life,” who at one point deadpans, “I’d like to DJ for as long as I have fingers, but I’m also really big into lizards.”
The kid turns out to have an entire, lizard-based retirement plan. It’s magical.
We should be rightly horrified by our moronic excess and Greenfield wields beautifully the Medusa mirror. If there’s one place it stumbles, it’s late in the film, as Greenfield gropes toward a prescription, some kind of solution or coping strategy for our pervasive decline. After so capably depicting a societal ill, she sort of retreats into new age-y actualization doctrine in the last 10 or 15 minutes, complete with one subject discussing the importance of self-esteem set to tinkling pianos. So the problem is relentless commodification, and the solution is… positive thinking? Greenfield herself would surely never put it quite so reductively but it’s hard to miss the subtext.
She also attempts to draw a parallel between her own workaholic tendencies and the addictions of some of her subjects, from the swindling hedge funders to the girls with eating disorders. The attempt at self-criticism is admirable, but the analogy feels faulty. That she works too much and should think of her family more is just too banal to stand alongside the extremes of her subjects. It’s a relatable problem though, grasping after a magic bullet that doesn’t seem to exist.
Generation Wealth is, as Greenfield surely intended, a valuable and necessary work of cultural anthropology, that entertains even as it horrifies. It’s an important watch that never feels like homework.
Generation Wealth opens today in New York and LA before expanding wide.