‘Generation Wealth’ Expertly Examines Our New Version of the American Dream
Lauren Greenfield’s stinging indictment of greed and excess also packs an unexpected emotional wallop.
Are people capable of moderation, particularly in matters of personal wealth? That’s the question driving Lauren Greenfield’s latest documentary, Generation Wealth. A photographer by trade, the prolific (some would say obsessive) Greenfield expertly mixes word and image to deliver a thought-provoking treatise on the nature of greed.
Greenfield’s background as an artist serves this material well. What might have become a talking-heads doc populated by experts with more initials after their name than actual personality is, instead, infused with plenty of heart. She wisely limits the academics and emphasizes the personal toll of greed. She even climbs atop the magnifying glass herself, dissecting the impact her demanding job has had on her two young sons. Like all of her cinematic subjects, Greenfield herself has made serious mistakes in judgement that call into question her career-first mentality.
Preparations for an upcoming book on wealth culture propel Greenfield into her deep photographic archives. Half a million photos deep, to be exact! This fool’s errand inspires her to revisit several subjects from her earliest photographic assignments. Three preening beach boys and the ultra-skinny object of their desire are revisited nearly 25 years later. It comes as no surprise to find that the three boys are still preening and the ultra-skinny girl has matured into an intelligent, introspective woman. She laments gearing her appearance “toward the male gaze,” a theme that re-surfaces several times amongst Greenfield’s list of predominantly female interviewees.
The culture of wealth has fascinated Greenfield (whose last feature was 2012’s The Queen of Versailles) for nearly three decades, which enables her to tackle this singular subject with great expertise on multiple levels. From conspicuous consumption to sexuality to investment banking, Generation Wealth tackles the totality of greed without ever feeling scattered or overwhelming. All of her subjects come from different professions and economic stratospheres, but they all suffer from the same inability to control their lust for just a little bit more.
“Wealth is whatever gives us value,” Chris Hedges concludes. Acting as the film’s lone expert, the professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is brimming with visions of the apocalypse, equating America’s obsession with unbridled wealth to the Roman Empire shortly before its demise. This global collapse is echoed on a smaller scale in the lives of Greenfield’s other subjects, who have survived all manner of self-inflicted crises.
There is her former classmate at Harvard, German hedge fund super villain Florian Homm, who looks like a Freudian wet dream as he puffs lasciviously on an obscenely large cigar. It’s unlikely that Homm, currently residing in Germany to avoid extradition back to the United States on investment fraud charges, feels any real remorse for his financial swashbuckling, but he provides valuable insight into the mind of a ruthless business man. Alternating between disarming charm and sickening hubris, Homm warns that, “What you’re sold in this world is a bag of rotten goods.”
Those rotten goods dominate the lives of women like Suzanne, a successful female investment banker who sacrificed everything, including a family, to stay competitive in her male-dominated profession. Now in her forties and unable to get pregnant, Suzanne must hire a surrogate to carry the child her body rejected. Even more tragic is the case of Courtney Roskop. Perhaps best known as adult film starlet Kacey Jordan, Roskop is wracked by eating disorders, drug addiction, and suicide attempts. And let’s not even talk about Cathy, the middle-aged women who travels to Brazil for risky plastic surgery without the benefit of general anesthesia.
Many of these interviews are extremely hard to watch. Our punishing judgement toward self-destructive behavior is tempered by the sheer pain and suffering these lost souls have endured. Greenfield expertly balances every glamorous rise with its calamitous fall. True, the dangers of fast living aren’t exactly unexplored territory, but Greenfield’s obsession to photographically chronicle everything provides unfettered access to places where movie cameras aren’t allowed to go.
For a narrative structure that moves both forwards and backwards in time, Greenfield’s life provides a chronological anchor to keep the story moving forward. Particularly poignant are the scenes with her eldest son, Noah, who is just months away from graduating High School. Theirs is a relationship of voicemails and Skype chats between Greenfield’s location shoots. Moments are lost forever, as when Greenfield vainly tries to reach Noah to congratulate him on a perfect ACT score. That Greenfield reserves the most punishing judgement for herself greatly reduces the preachiness that often accompanies films about cultural condemnation.
What Greenfield has accomplished with Generation Wealth is a stinging indictment of the redefined American Dream. Hard work and dedication have been replaced by short cuts and entitlement. This might not be a film that changes the world, but it’s certainly enough to prompt some much needed self-examination.