Just what can money buy you? Status, class, authority, respect, infamy, a presidency? The list of things you can gain with a little (or rather a lot) of green, is endless. In the Western society, money makes the world go around. However, we all know the old saying: Money can’t buy you happiness. Certainly, we discover this is indeed the case in Lauren Greenfield’s explosive, compelling and entertaining documentary Generation Wealth.
Greenfield revisits old subject who she has photographed over the last 25 years of her career, and asks them to share their thoughts on money, fame and status. All of these larger-than-life individuals have spent an obscene amount of cash in pursuit of a lifestyle of the rich and famous. And these characters are all infamous in their own right, whether it be for hardcore pornography, tax fraud, cosmetic surgery, beauty pageants, or for building a custom-designed palace.
Greenfield’s previous documentary, The Queen of Versailles, was all about the Siegels, whose plan to build the largest house in America was stalled by the economic crisis. We re-visit them again in Generation Wealth, among other wild characters like Florian Homm (a real life Gordon Gekko) and 6-year-old Eden Wood (a former beauty queen). All of which seem to share one thing in common… a deep sense of regret that they allowed money to control their lives for so long.
Greenfield’s journey starts in Los Angeles, and spreads across America, showing how the obsession for wealth and status controls every aspect of American life. Via globalization, the values of materialism, celebrity culture, and social status have now spread to every corner of the globe, and now the concept of the ‘American Dream’ has spread to Moscow, Dubai and to China.
The film documents the somewhat tragic stories of students, single parents, and working class families who have fallen under the spell. And have become determined to purchase luxury houses, cars, and clothing, while plunging themselves into vast amounts of debt. Greenfield manages to gain intimate access to those who achieved extraordinary levels of wealth and then lost “big” during the global economic crash of 2008. The tale of an Icelandic banker turned fisherman being one such touching story.
Greenfield isn’t afraid to look at her own ‘wealth’ and ‘privilege’. Examining her own attitudes towards wealth, work and success, born to an upper middle class family and sent to a private LA school, where she hung out with the living embodiment of the kids from Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. Ellis makes a brief appearance in this documentary to discuss our obsession with youth, beauty and wealth.
It was the photographs of the LA rich kids, that helped to launch Greenfield’s career in 1997, the collection is called Fast Forward. The original images reflect Greenfield’s career-long fascination with bling, wild partying, drug taking and celebrity status.
The documentary includes the photos and footage from the early years as Greenfield’s career. And we discover that at one point Greenfield unwittingly captured a young Kim Kardashian attending a school dance. Fast forward twenty or so years, and the Kardashian’s are role models to countless girls across the globe, with many girls going to extraordinary lengths to be like their idols.
Greenfield admits that she is “susceptible to the culture” and in some ways complicit in it, and who is to blame her, the world of th rich and famous seems very entrancing. Lauren’s job has made for long stints away from home: when her oldest boy, Noah, was mere weeks old, she flew to China for a major photographic tour of the development boom. Noah is interviewed in the documentary, and admits to having felt abandoned due to Greenfield’s frequent travels.
This is a hard documentary to watch, and it turns particularly heartbreaking when Greenfield checks back in with some of her subjects from years past. Cathy, a single mother, became homeless after being unable to pay off her plastic surgery “vacation” in Brazil, and experienced an unimaginable personal tragedy. And even the story of Homm, the banker accused of fraud, becomes upsetting when he breaks down in regret over how his obsession with wealth damaged his relationship with his family.
Some critics have stated that there is a lack of a cohesive narrative, because of the sheer amount of individual stories that Greenfield covers in the documentary. However, how do you pick and chose who to focus on, when each story is so fascinating? When asked about this, Greenfield said she wanted to show the audience the big picture. “People from these diverse backgrounds and places were exhibiting these same behaviors.”
Considering where we’ve ended up with the 2016 election, this film really helps bring home the fact that we need to stop obsessing about wealth. Instead, focus on what makes us truly happy. Generation Wealth is both an eye-opening thrill ride, and a hard slap in the face.