Generation Wealth is a stirring, sometimes terrifying, look into modern society’s belief that too much is never enough
American documentary photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has spent her 25-year career photographing various iterations of excess and addiction, her exploits taking her from Wall Street to plastic surgery clinics, from anorexia rehabilitation centres to porn film sets and beyond. She has met many weird, wonderful and sometimes tragic characters along the way – think: David and Jackie Siegel, the stars of her 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles, which follows the billionaire couple’s attempt to build the biggest house in America; or Eden Wood, the child beauty pageant star, whom Greenfield photographed dolled up to the nines in feathers, make-up and miniature ball gowns.
Interestingly, however, she never really considered there to be a linking thread between her preferred subjects until the economic crash of 2008, which threw society’s endless quest for more, more, more into sharp relief. “That was when I first thought that there might be a connection between the different things that I had documented throughout my career,” Greenfield tells us over the phone from her home in LA. “I decided to put together a book of my photographs, which I started working on properly in 2012, and began to examine how the pieces fit together. At the beginning, I thought it was about money but as I went I realised it was more about addiction – that you could replace money with beauty or youth or fame or any of the other unattainable ideals that we strive for, which even if we achieve them still don’t satisfy us and leave us wanting more.”
While compiling the book – titled Generation Wealth, and released by Phaidon in 2017 – Greenfield realised that her image archive alone could not answer the many questions she had regarding how the modern world arrived at this worrying belief that too much is never enough. “There was a historical component that I really wanted to show – about how we reached this point – which started in Reagan’s 80s, and that was something I felt I needed to do in a film,” she says. She also realised that making a documentary to accompany the book would allow her to revisit some of her old subjects, and give them the opportunity to tell their own story on camera. “I have always conducted interviews with the people I’ve photographed, and often present their words alongside the images, in order to better understand their point of view,” she explains. “But hearing from them in person gives you even more of a chance to understand them and their choices. I feel that this subject is something that we’re all complicit in, and which is a real threat not just to our happiness but to our planet, so I wanted to create a more emotional experience.” And so Generation Wealth, the documentary, was born.
The film – which has just landed in UK cinemas – was four years in the making, including 30 long months of editing (Greenfield expected to spend ten to 12 months max in the cutting room but in fact finished the process “like the day before” the documentary opened at Sundance Film Festival in January of this year). “It was a project that really evolved creatively in the edit room,” she explains, “It was a mix of the 500 or so hours of footage that I had made previously, over the course of my working life, and then I would go and shoot new material and come back.”
The result is a fast-paced, multi-character collage that makes for thoroughly impactful and frequently alarming viewing. We meet a former hedge-fund manager living in exile in Germany after being put on the FBI’s most wanted list for fraud – a man who once had so many holiday homes, but so little free time, that there were some he’d never even visited – who would happily fly his 15-year-old son to Amsterdam and pay a prostitute to take his virginity but who was never really present in his family’s everyday life. Then there’s the former bus driver whose insecurities with her own body led her to undergo drastic plastic surgery she could barely afford, and a porn star whose journey into the adult film industry led to almost instant fame and fortune but at a huge cost to her mental and physical wellbeing. Other cast members – such as the etiquette teacher offering Chinese women lessons in dainty banana peeling and the correct pronunciation of “Dol-che and Gab-ba-na”, and “Limo Bob”, proud owner of the world’s most over-the-top fleet of limousines – offer a little light relief, but at every corner the message is loud and clear: neither money, fame nor fortune, nor the ideal body can buy you true happiness.
Greenfield, who turned to photography in her teenage years in Los Angeles as a way of overcoming her shyness, demonstrates a clear knack for exacting extraordinarily candid responses from her subjects, who offer brave and bewildering insight into the whys, whats and hows behind their respective narratives. “I think, for me, the camera has been a passport to asking people questions, being nosey, breaking through shyness and in a way through social norms,” she reflects. “You get to ask questions that you might not be comfortable asking in normal situations. It creates this connection and this opportunity for truth-telling which I think is so exciting.”
In an unexpected twist (unexpected even to Greenfield herself, who says the idea “just sort of bubbled up” halfway through making the film), the director inserts snippets from her own life into the film, conducting interviews with her family members – her two sons, Noah and Gabriel, her elderly mother and father – to shed light on her own personal addiction: her work. “I was going to interview my parents and my kids as representatives of their own generations – to discuss the American Dream with my dad, whose parents were immigrants; to discuss social media with my son – so that’s how it started,” she expands. “But the magic of documentaries is that spontaneous cinéma vérité element, that decisive moment you don’t expect and that’s what happened: as we spoke, our personal relationships started to come to the surface, and I couldn’t help seeing connections between the stories that my subjects were telling me and my own. I didn’t want to trivialise their often very tragic, difficult narratives, but I wanted the audiences to empathise with these larger-than-life characters and to show that I had learned from them and how I ended up treading the line between outsider and insider.”
At times, Generation Wealth feels like a terrifying cautionary tale, with no hope of a happy ending; as writer and academic Chris Hedges says ominously in an interview, “These are the images of a society in extraordinary decline”. But at others it feels, just as Greenfield suggests through the inclusion of her own experience, like a powerful opportunity for learning and self-reflection – the only things that have the power to free us from this tangled web of misplaced desires. “I feel like what I came to in the end is the most clichéd conclusion in the world but one that was really resonant for me,” Greenfield says matter-of-factly, as our conversation draws to a close. “And that’s that money doesn’t buy you happiness and all you need is love. What all of the characters came to in the end was a wanting to get back to what matters: to family and friends and community. Right now is the time to stop chasing ‘fool’s gold’ and to heal that before it’s too late.”
Generation Wealth is in cinemas nationwide now.