From the time she was a teen, photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield has been obsessed with wealth, and the presentation of it, in American life. In her mind, the underlying problem isn’t strictly money – it’s the environment that capitalism creates, the commodification of every aspect of life that makes people hunger for more, prettier, better. With Thin, Greenfield explored the effect of media on the development of eating disorders in young girls; with The Queen of Versailles, it was the damage that compulsive overspending and ambitious largesse can do to the American psyche.
Generation Wealth, Greenfield’s latest, feels like her anti-capitalist magnum opus, a natural extrapolation of the themes of a lifetime’s work – even going so far as to include Greenfield herself as a major player in the story. In doing so, however, Generation Wealth loses some of the focus such a comprehensive exposé requires, but never sacrifices its sense of emotional complexity.
In many ways, Generation Wealth feels like Versailles writ large, Greenfield’s treatise on the complex and tragic intersections between greed, power, and the distortion of the American Dream. Using her typical approach of first-person interviews creatively intercut with archival footage and her own reams of photographs, Generation Wealth explores the impulses that lie underneath what the film’s lone economist calls an “end of Rome” moment for America as a nation. Like the final days of Rome, he says, America is in a downward spiral of increasing levels of superficiality and consumption. In exploring this, Greenfield asks the great question lying underneath American society: in a country of such boundless wealth, why is no one happy?
The subjects of Greenfield’s investigation are varied – young and old, rich and poor – and there are almost too many to list. There’s Florian Homm, the cigar-chomping hedge fund manager who ended up on the FBI Most Wanted List for racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in investment fraud. There’s Susanne, the middle-aged workaholic who loses herself in Botox and business meetings, and porn star Kacey Jordan, who infamously palled around with mid-breakdown Charlie Sheen before filming her own suicide attempt. Don’t forget 3-year-old Eden Wood of Toddlers and Tiaras fame, who gleefully admits that her favorite thing is “money” while dolled up in oversexualized pageant gear.
These figures (and others) are the subjects of Greenfield’s case study, and all of them are happy to open up about their experiences with wealth, with varying degrees of self-awareness. Some are fully aware of their various addictions – Jordan, Homm – while others (e.g. Greenfield’s old school friends from the rich Brentwood academy she attended) haven’t grown out of the bratty rich kids they were as teens. The doc also demonstrates the ways in which this greed-is-good philosophy extended to the rest of the world: Chinese billionaires building full-scale replicas of the White House, Russia resurrecting the Debutante Ball as a branding party for the rich and famous, Iceland moving full-steam into a robust banking system to take advantage of looser lending regulations. When America became infected with unchecked greed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it seems the rest of the world caught the bug.
In grand Greenfield fashion, there’s an element of grim humor to her depiction of the obnoxious wealth and attitudes of her subjects. Take Preston, the dead-eyed son of a Las Vegas madam, who brags about having seen $5,000 sex toy sessions and says, without a touch of irony, “I wanna DJ as long as I can move my fingers. I’m also really into lizards.” It’s the same impulse that makes The Real Housewives such a cult sensation – that curious combination of envy and pity that comes from observing people with more money than they know what to do with. Of course, these moments are leavened with tremendous tragedy, like cosmetic surgery-obsessed Cathy Grant’s remorse at the loss of her child due to the body issues she no doubt played a part in exacerbating. (Don’t forget the obligatory clips of Trump at rallies and his golden New York tower, seemingly a prerequisite in every progressive doc of the last two years.)
The real make-or-break aspect of Generation Wealth, however, is Greenfield’s desire to turn the camera back on herself. While her subjects are obsessed with wealth and image, she professes a certain obsession with her work; going away on weeks-long shoots, leaving her ever-patient husband to raise their kids while obsessively filming every moment they have together (often to the kid’s chagrin).
It’s these moments that feel most self-reflective, and yet most at odds with the larger film’s mission. In short, Greenfield’s problems seem far too removed from the decadence that plagues the America she’s describing. While her obsession with work is a compelling subject on its own (as evidenced by the generational interrogations of her children toward her, and she towards her own mother), those moments feel borne of an entirely different documentary. Too much of Generation Wealth is about the documentarian rather than its subject, serving to diminish its larger goals in favor of unduly harsh self-reflection. To be honest, Greenfield shouldn’t be quite this hard on herself – she’s working long hours to make art with the permission of her family, not destroying the world economy.
Generation Wealth eventually becomes less of a deep dive into the real sociopolitical problems of wealth inequality and rampant consumerism and more of a personal essay/human interest piece about the everyday costs of ambition. As Greenfield shows the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, and the personal and economic toll it took on her interview subjects, the drug-like nature of greed becomes even more complicated. It’s these moments, and the fortune-cookie aphorisms about focusing on your family over money, that come across as more than a little treacly.
With its tales of ridiculous greed and over-the-top cosmetic surgeries, Generation Wealth may seem like a bit of a freakshow, but that’s part of Greenfield’s grand plan – to “look at the extremes to understand the mainstream.” By seeing people who have completely transformed their bodies, or sacrificed family lives to chase greater wealth and fame, audiences can more clearly understand the smaller ways that obsession with status reflects their own lives. While the focus occasionally gets lost in the filmmaker’s personal inquisition, it remains a thought-provoking, challenging cap to Greenfield’s life-long body of work.