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It's the Economy, Dude: Lauren Greenfield Looks at Kidsumerism

By Tamara Krinsky

From Lauren Greenfield's 'kids + money'

Sometimes HBO seems to have a sixth sense about scheduling its programming in tandem with current events. When director Lauren Greenfield (Thin) began working on her latest documentary, kids + money, she had no idea the film would end up making its broadcast debut on HBO in the middle of a terrible economic crisis. But perhaps there is no better time to hear from America's youth about their thoughts on spending and consumerism.

Greenfield, an acclaimed photographer, says that ­kids + money is rooted in her first book, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. The book was published in 1997, and the images within chronicle the effects of growing up in a media-saturated environment, the importance of image and the influence of the culture of materialism and celebrity. Since then, she has often revisited issues about teens and consumerism in her work, both within the US and around the globe.

Last year, New York Times Magazine gave Greenfield the assignment to interview kids about money. "It started as a modest little project," she says. "But when I got into it and started talking to kids, I realized it was a chance to go back to the subject of my first photography book and look at it in film."

While all of the subjects of kids + money reside in the Los Angeles area, the neighborhoods range from poor to posh. The teens address the camera directly, speaking candidly about everything from body image to the imperative of owning the right sneakers to their beliefs about the relationship between money and happiness. Several poignantly talk about how changes in their family's financial situations have affected them.

It's rare to hear money so openly discussed. For adults, talking about material desires is often considered gauche or taboo. We may joke about selling our souls for the latest iPhone or pair of Jimmy Choos, but rarely do we publicly admit to how having these items can deeply affect our self-esteem and position among our peers. Greenfield has done an admirable job of getting her subject to open up about these topics.

"I think the kids in the film are truth-tellers for their communities and often the values of the adult world," she observes. "They are so honest and direct. It's almost like in William Wegman's photographs of dogs-we can laugh at some of the traditions of humans because we see them in a dog's life. Sometimes seeing mainstream values in kids makes us see or think about our own values."

While originally the filmmaker was a bit nervous about doing a "talking heads" documentary, Greenfield was pleasantly surprised to find that the format gave her the luxury of being able to make the film look more like her photography. The structure enabled her to approach each interview as an environmental portrait, strategically choosing backgrounds and angles to add visual information to the frame. She subtly reinforces the words spoken by her subjects with images of their homes, families and prized possessions.

Despite the rigid setup, surprises abounded during production. Greenfield and her team did brief pre-interviews with the kids, but waited to go deep until the cameras were rolling. "The beauty and thrill of the documentary is that unbelievable things were said that I never could have predicted," she says. "It's the most exciting part of the process for me, and the part that as a documentarian I kind of live for."

One could easily judge some of the teens in the film for their materialistic attitudes, but Greenfield is hoping that their honesty about their values invites compassion rather than scorn. "I realize it's somewhat provocative in terms of what's said in the film, but I'd like to hope that it provokes discussion about the issue," she maintains. "That's really what the film is there for. I think the kids in the film and their parents recognize it's an issue, and I think that's why they participated."

Currently, the entire country is having a discussion about our value systems. Kids + money is a worthy addition to the conversation.


kids + money debuted November 28 on HBO and will air on selected dates in December.

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary and the host of the weekly tech show The Spotlight at