More Money, More Problems: 'Generation Wealth' Looks at the Dark Side of the Dream
"Show me the money!" was Cuba Gooding Jr.'s rallying cry in Jerry Maguire back in the '90s. Today everyone seems intent on showing you the money; ostentatious displays of wealth seem to be all around us. In her new film, Generation Wealth, veteran photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield (Thin; Queen of Versailles) takes us on a dizzying journey around the globe, exploring our current obsession with wealth and its trappings.
The documentary—part of a multiplatform project that includes a travelling photography exhibition and a photography book—explores our unbridled obsession with materialism. Through a varied cast of characters, ranging from a porn star to a hedge-fund manager, from a convicted financier to a former bus driver, Greenfield takes a harsh, unflinching look the covetousness, greed, vanity and vulgarity afflicting our society.
On the phone from Los Angeles, Greenfield explains the complicated genesis of the film: "I was not making a movie at the beginning. I was really doing this photo book. I didn’t even know if the different ideas would connect, which is kind of how all my photobooks have been. It’s a process of delving in and seeing how I can put together the pieces of the puzzle. I was working on the book first, and as I was doing that, I was listening to the interviews and I was going back through the voices of all of these subjects, and at a certain point I realized that I needed to make a film to really bring the characters alive."
Having photographed many of the subjects several decades ago and revisiting them later, after they’ve been dealt life’s inevitable curve balls, the director becomes a social anthropologist, reminiscent of Michael Apted and his UP series. Greenfield says the film gave her "a chance to go back to people to see what had happened to them over time. This movie was really different for me. I’ve never made an essay film; I don’t even really like essay films. But I really felt that with this film, I wanted to make a kind of personal essay film because I felt like I needed to put it in historical context. That was the exciting opportunity for me, and why I wanted to make it into film: being able to have that longitudal look over a generation, and being drawn to people whose lives have really spoken in some ways to the failure of the American dream and being misguided. I was taking different people and ideas to tell a bigger story about what has happened to our culture, and to deconstruct the things that we take for granted and we see all around, and show the matrix that we are living in."
Indeed, it seems that the puritanical values of hard work and frugality, of modesty and moderation, have become outdated. Flaunting one's wealth seems to be the lingua franca of millennials the world over. The goal is not simply lucre or financial success; it's about appearing rich and emulating the trappings of wealth in order to fool others—and, inadvertently, oneself.
Greenfield maintains, "I felt that Generation Wealth was about the aspirations of wealth and how we always want to be other than we are—which has been a kind of theme in my work from the beginning—and how capitalism can drive that insecurity to want more and to want to be different than you are. As I started to go through my work, I started to see a lot of different connections. It wasn't just about money or pretending that you have it even if you don't; it was also about the currency of all of these other things: beauty, sexuality, youth, fame. So it got bigger and bigger and more broad, and a lot of different ideas that had informed my work started to come together, in how they fit into capitalism and wealth—the commodification of everything, including human beings."
The documentary also explores a secondary theme: parenting, as many of the subjects discuss mistakes they made in the past, or how the role of parent has changed them. Greenfield herself features both of her parents and her two precocious, whip-smart children. "The part that was sort of unexpected was my role in it," she admits. "I've always been a straight reportage, cinema vérité, stay-out-of-your-own-story documentarian, but this story swept me in because it was a process of looking back over my work. I was the connective tissue that was bringing these teams, subjects and ideas together, so my voice was required—first as a narrator, more as an observer, but as I got deeper and deeper into it, I started interviewing people in my own family, in the beginning just as representatives of their own generation. It was not part of the original plan because it’s not in my photography. The work is really about values, and I started thinking about the conflict between my parents’ values and the values I saw in the culture. I started seeing it as this conflict between legacy and agency."
When asked if this phenomenon of conspicuous consumption is restricted to the Western World, or former Communist empires like Russia and China, Greenfield is quick to counter, "No, what I saw in the financial crash was that it was kind of a contagious virus that spread with globalization and our interconnected financial structure. And I ended up representing that in Iceland, but I also shot extensively in Ireland. In a way this project was born in the financial crisis, and that’s when I saw, as I was making Queen of Versailles, very similar flaws and consequences, imagery and typology of imagery between America, Europe, Dubai. People had all made similar mistakes about wanting bigger and bigger, and not having 'enough,' and going too far. But I shot from Mexico to Brazil, from Ireland to Iceland, to Dubai, China to Russia, to Italy. It definitely wasn’t limited to places where there were new rich. In Iceland, where the fisherman says he decorated his house like the Kardashians, that globalization of media is transforming the values."
Obviously media, and particularly social media and its fawning over celebrity culture, has fed this beast. As Greenfield points out, "Since the '70s, images of luxury and the wealthy have multiplied on television and the media. And the research shows that the more people see those kinds of images, the more they think that more people have them than actually do, and the more they desire them themselves. The American dream used to be about comparing yourself to your neighbor. The idea that the person down the street, has a house the same as yours, but a little bit nicer. That keeping up the Joneses aspiration has been transformed into Keeping Up with the Kardashians, as we have started to spend more time with characters that we know from TV than with our actual neighbors. And that unrealistic aspiration is a huge driver for this.
"The reason we are so affected by television now and it's so powerful," Greenfield continues, "is that the values of our traditional institutions have become less powerful in our lives: family, religion and traditional morality are not as strong as they used to be, and have been swept away by the values of corporate capitalism and the values of television.
"The other thing that has happened is that since the '70s, we have less social mobility than ever before and more concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. And so the real American dream—the idea that you could work hard and go from rags to riches—is more and more unrealistic for people. So this fictitious social mobility through bling and through 'fake it 'til you make it' is often the only kind of social mobility within reach. So yes, television is a huge part of that. And next is social media; it accentuates, even more than television, image over substance."
But the film is not all Bollinger and Birkin bags; it doesn’t shy away from showing rather graphic scenes of a plastic surgery operation and a shoot of a pornographic film. "I come from photojournalism," Greenfield explains. "For a long time I was in a photo agency called VII, where I was with all war photographers. I remember once we were doing a group book, and I was surprised that they were more disturbed by pictures of plastic surgery than by very graphic pictures of war in Iraq and Haiti. This is the image of elective surgery that people choose to have every day, and it's important to show the details of that because mostly in our culture, what we see are the before-and-after pictures, the sales pictures. They don't show you what it's really going to take; it's important for people to see the seriousness of this elective surgery. To me it really speaks to the misogyny in that we cut ourselves and this seems really normal.
"Also, one of the big inspirations for the film, and a touchstone of my work, is the role of Kim Kardashian, who had become famous from a sex tape. The pornification of the culture and how that affects children is really important for me to show."
The documentary is a cautionary tale for parents, and after precipitous, Icarus-worthy falls, the characters learn their lessons and achieve a modicum of redemption. "The most powerful realization for me was seeing it all in terms of addiction," Greenfield admits. "That dream is actually an addiction that has no end, and no satisfaction. And the only way you come out of addiction is by hitting rock-bottom. The financial crash was rock-bottom. In the movie, people have their own personal crashes, but in a way they are the gift that we learn from and have the possibility of change out of."
The editing of the film and merging all the different narratives presented the director with an intellectual and editorial puzzle. "It wasn't until I finished the book that I understood what the story was," she concedes. "I was really researching my own material, where the photography and interviews were really evident of the culture, and trying to figure out what it all meant. So I spent more than a year just reading the interviews. That was the hardest part intellectually and in terms of the filmmaking, it was a real challenge editorially putting it all together. I ended up spending 30 months in the edit, which was three times what I've spent before on a film. We had four editors, and two of them were working in tandem for a long time. It's such a hybrid movie, it's part essay, part vérité, part personal film. And I really wanted to weave all of the parts together in a way that made sense.
"At first I was just going to make a short film for the [Annenberg Space for Photography in LA], and when I realized I really needed to make a feature-length film, I brought it to Amazon. And they were amazing, because I showed them mostly pictures in a book dummy, and they saw the film. It took me longer than I expected, it went in a direction I did not expect, and they allowed me to find the film. And I was excited to work with a company that still believes in a theatrical release. I've seen this movie now in several theatrical settings; it was at Sundance, then in Berlin and at SXSW, and it really is a better experience in a theater with a big group of people having reactions than at home alone in front of your TV. A programmer at Berlin said, 'When I saw it at home on a link, I thought it was a tragedy, and when I saw it with an audience, I thought it was a comedy.' There's something about the laughing and crying and shock that people experience in a theater together that is much more satisfying.”
Generation Wealth opens in theaters in Los Angeles and New York on July 20 through Amazon Studios.
Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor. She is currently editing the documentary feature 8 Billion Angels. Her work has aired on Bravo, A&E, AMC and The History Channel. She can be reached through www.darianna.com.