When did everyone get so money-hungry?
How did women start looking at $35,000 purses as ‘investments’? Who buys 24K gold toilets? Why do L.A. teens get so much plastic surgery?
You’ll find some answers in Generation Wealth, Lauren Greenfield’s riveting new documentary about the pursuit of wealth in America and the world. It opens in Toronto this Friday.
The filmmaker behind The Queen of Versailles — an award-winning movie about the couple building the biggest house in America and the 2008 crash — Greenfield has spent 25 years photographing the culture and tracing the obsessive quest for money, fame, youth, beauty and power.
Greenfield began working in the early ’90s, just as the material excess of the ‘80s met the internet, and bonded. Her films and photos capture the American Dream as it evolves from work-based edifice to fame-based frippery.
Generation Wealth concerns the super-rich. It’s a film that stares down what passes for contemporary culture and it suggests that love of money might, in fact, be the root of all evil. Despite the dark premise, however, the movie is redemptive, and you’ll be completely engaged by Greenfield’s cast of characters — a former porn star, filthy rich oligarchs, a Wall Street workaholic, a disgraced hedge fund guy and various others who went after money with a passion.
Her film moves all over the globe — America, China, Ireland, Dubai, Iceland, Europe — examining wretched excess in every spot; as Greenfield says, “I look at the extremes to understand the mainstream.”
Generation Wealth is a profound social and historical document, a a sort of end-times picture of a culture in decay. This is a snapshot of how we live now, when the 1% have ensured that social mobility no longer exists and reality TV holds up increasingly impossible notions of wealth and what it can buy.
The film is also autobiographical. It includes moments with Greenfield’s husband, children and academic parents; they help shore up the idea that education, family, and work are not entirely passe.
Is any film about the worship of affluence and the commodification of women complete without a photo of Harvey Weinstein, a shot of Kim Kardashian, or footage of Donald Trump walking into his gilded New York home? Alas, no.
We caught up with Lauren Greenfield by phone last week.
SUN: Your movie suggests we really are living in The Matrix — one shiny bauble or distraction after another.
LG: I really agree with what [journalist] Chris Hedges says in the movie, about how corporate capitalism is what destroys authentic culture. I think the reason it’s so strong in this generation, why we’re so swept up in it, is that the institutions that used to be a kind of countervailing influence — family, religion and secular morality, or citizenship and what that meant, and school, or girl scouts or boy scouts — these institutions that offered us a kind of code to live by have lessened in influence. At the same time our exposure to corporate capitalism and popular culture and media has increased. So, I think it’s just got much more extreme.
SUN: Why did you decide to include autobiographical material?
LG: I felt it was important in this work to understand that this is not about somebody else. You might go in thinking, ‘Oh my gawd, a hedge fund banker driven by greed,’ or, ‘A porn star willing to sell her body!’ but what they’re engaged in is a kind of extreme version of what we’re all engaged in — and complicit with. When things came up with my own family, that in a way mirrored some of the pathologies of the subjects, I needed to be willing to look at that too, and show how it also affected me and my family. I felt I had gone through this journey over 25 years, and needed to think about why I did that, and what I learned along the way. And I thought the autobiographical part was the way to do that. It’s all our lives.
SUN: Has your relationship with money changed based on watching people pursue it?
LG: I was never really driven by money … But my relationship with consumerism has changed, and my relationship with my family has changed, as a result of this project. It’s just increased awareness. When I want to buy something, I’m really thinking about why I want to buy it. And if I do buy it, I’m acknowledging that I’m caught up in something that’s kind of bigger than me. And so I have more awareness about that. With my family, just having a deeper understanding of myself as a workaholic, and the effect it has on them, makes me prioritize differently and be more present. I try to unplug and really appreciate the moments I have with them, and not let things go by too fast.