Lauren Greenfield is an American photographer and filmmaker who documents culture on a global scale. Her previous films include The Queen of Versailles, about a billionaire’s scheme to create a vast mansion in Florida styled after the French palace; and Thin — following four young women being treated in a specialist eating disorders centre, again in Florida.
Greenfield brings her long-pursued twin subjects of super-richness and extreme alienation together in Generation Wealth, a dazzling, dismaying exploration of the pursuit of gigantic wealth. It spans beauty obsession, body commodification, ageing, gender, high finance, drug culture, sex work and more.
We meet: the ambitious mother who, for financial reward, sells her toddler daughter as a sexualised burlesque performer; the egotistical hedge fund manager jailed for fraud after the 2008 banking crash and his wary, unforgiving son; the 40-something magnate who spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on IVF and surrogacy only to be deserted by her husband for a younger woman two months after her daughter’s birth; and the wise 21 year old inhabiting the alcohol-fuelled world of his mother’s pole-dance club empire.
Some of it is hard to watch. A bus driver seeks release from her low-paid routine through total body cosmetic surgeries, impoverishing her family with tragic results.
Greenfield isn’t just showing us the money however. She is engaged in a struggle to understand the individual drives for such extremes, and the sociohistorical meaning of contemporary consumerism in relation to the evolution of the American Dream.
A commentator explains the US’s economic shifts from production to consumption, and consequent transformation of the American collective identity from worker/producer to consumer. This shift, and its accompanying explosion of “wealth trappings”, is likened to the final days of the Roman Empire, where elite extravagance and excess preceded collapse and disintegration.
Greenfield is troubled by the damage inflicted by insatiable desires for wealth and fame. She links the drive for opulence and perfection to the use of drugs, alcohol and food to numb pain and forget trauma, and is forced to ask whether her own lifelong work obsession is on the same spectrum. The film shows children who feel abandoned by their driven, absent parents — including Greenfield’s own sons.
Desperate for a solution, she turns back to the family in the form of a self-aware type of “conscious parenting”, free of TV and “quick fixes”. New-age mummies and daddies wander through the countryside and play effortlessly and endlessly with their wild-child offspring. It’s a nice life if you can get it. But why not document collective social protest against wealth inequality?
The clue, for me, was hidden in a seconds-long sequence of still images (not taken by Greenfield) near the beginning of the film. While she was growing up, Greenfield felt the absence of her mother, who had a successful career as an academic anthropologist and was also a radical political activist engaged in the upheavals shaking 1960s and 1970s America. The stills show Greenfield’s mother on a demonstration.
I hope that Greenfield can work through her feelings of abandonment and next bring her considerable talents to bear on another aspect of modern American history: the resistance to oppression and inequality.