It is the weekend of Photo London, and Somerset House, which hosts the fair – and London as a whole – is buzzing with photography. The Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield is in the capital to promote her new book, the 650-page, golden-covered tome, Generation Wealth. 25 years in the making, it is a distillation of Greenfield’s social documentary work focusing on the culture of wealth: new money, old money, the addictive nature of consumerism, materialist desire, the cult of celebrity; you name it, it’s here. Personal testimonies based on interviews by Greenfield, often surprisingly honest and deeply moving, add an extra dimension to the images.
When we meet, Greenfield stresses that the book is about the aspiration of wanting to be wealthy as much as it is about people who have money. “A lot of it is not about the rich and in a way that’s the double-take – you think it’s about the rich… And then you find out that even people like David and Jackie Siegel [the protagonists of Greenfield’s film The Queen of Versailles] are aspirational to the point of [falling prey to] the addictive quality of consumerism; how we never have enough and keep going until we hit rock bottom.”
The project, for which Greenfield mined her vast archive of magazine editorials and personal projects, began to take shape in her mind after the financial crisis of 2008. She recalls noticing similarities between how people from different walks of life were affected by the crash, from billionaires to the middle classes of suburban California and beyond. “When I saw this repetition, how [the crash] wasn’t just about the rich or the poor – or just about Americans – I realised there was a bigger story I wanted to tell,” she says. “In a way, all of the stories I had been working on since the early 1990s were connected. I was looking at wealth in a very broadly defined way, including the currency of fame, of branding, of youth, of the body, of sexuality, of beauty, and the importance of not just having money, but looking like you do – the fake it till you make it [mentality].”
Through Greenfield’s uncompromising and revealing lens we witness the ups and downs of a culture driven to desperation by needing to appear to be a certain way at seemingly any cost. As Greenfield discovered, this cuts across gender, class, race, and age: a high school president in Hollywood pays for a limo for his prom with money he’s saved for nearly two years; we glimpse teens that have had plastic surgery and divorcees who have also gone under the knife; rapper Tupac in a Las Vegas casino; and even a 12-year-old Kim Kardashian at a high school dance. “When I went back through the outtakes from my book Fast Forward as part of this project, I found a picture I recognised as Kim. She wasn’t in the original work because she wasn’t important, and then she became an important part of the culture. The exciting thing about doing this book was there were things I saw in retrospect that I didn’t see at the time, which became more powerful in context.”
What has changed in the time she’s been shooting is the prominence of the super rich as seen through “in our faces” images and footage, says Greenfield. “The one per cent is a very small group, but they are important for two reasons. One, they have a completely disproportionate influence, and two, everybody wants that. Instead of comparing ourselves to people we know, we compare ourselves to people on TV. So we have this very unrealistic reference group.”
Generation Wealth is something of a morality tale in that the stories of longing, pain and loneliness confirm that chasing money and goods doesn’t make us happy, says Greenfield. “In a way, the moral of the story of which so many of the characters speak is the simplest thing in the world. You wouldn’t think you’d need 25 years to get to it. But there’s something really powerful in hearing those stories from the most unexpected sources.” Does making the book mark an end to her investigation of the topic? “I’m working on a movie [to be released in the autumn], so I’m not done yet… [But] I was able to close a chapter by making the connections I did. I had the chance to very consciously investigate what I had been witness to over this period of huge social, cultural and technological change. I’m not judging or blaming the people I’m shooting, I’m trying to have a perspective of how we all fit in this matrix.”
Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield is out now, published by Phaidon.