‘Generation Wealth’ documents America’s money obession

Ilona, the wife of a Russian oligarch, is one of the many affluent people chronicled by Lauren Greenfield, director of “Generation Wealth.”
Photo by Lauren Greenfield

In early July, a new issue of Forbes hit the newsstands with a photo of Kylie Jenner and a caption describing the 21-year-old as “set to be the youngest-ever self-made billionaire.”

The phrase “self-made” rankled just about everyone, the magazine was lambasted on Twitter, and similarly well-heeled celebrities, from Kim Kardashian West to Paris Hilton, defended Jenner, with Hilton saying she, too, was self-made.

On July 17, Forbes followed that up with the revelation that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is now not only the richest man in the world, but the richest man in history, with a net worth of $151.4 billion — “a new record for Bezos and for all of the billionaires Forbes has tracked over the past three and half decades,” the magazine reported.

Again, the internet exploded with hot takes about money, ownership and excess.


Now comes the documentary “Generation Wealth,” Now comes the documentary “Generation Wealth,” and it’s as though the culture wars special-ordered it for this moment in time.

Directed by photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, who has spent her career chronicling money and excess, the film grew out of Greenfield’s preparation for a retrospective exhibit; it represents her most sprawling look at the subject yet — and the most autobiographical.

Greenfield takes the audience through the story of her career, interviewing family members to provide insight into her motivations. She also interviews individuals she’s photographed in the past — from the mom of one of the stars of “Toddlers and Tiaras” to a ’90s wannabe rapper — to see how the desire for money and fame have shaped their lives.

If the back-and-forth between confessor and observer isn’t enough, she throws in interviews with people like “Less Than Zero” author Brett Easton Ellis and journalist Chris Hedges, who talk at a remove about wealth culture.

And then there are interviews with people like Florian Hamm, a former hedge fund manager who’s wanted by the FBI, and Kacey Jordan, a former porn star who got famous by being mixed up in one of Charlie Sheen’s scandals.

Traveling across the world for her interviews, Greenfield leaves her family behind, even after her teenage son bemoans the fact that she has been an absentee parent. Yet she is driven to keep going — to obsessively document other people’s obsessions. So she gets on yet another plane to reconnect with the wife of a Russian oligarch, or to meet a woman who teaches luxury designer names to rich etiquette students in China, or to talk to the guy in Iceland who went from sailor to banker to sailor again.

It is exhausting, but Greenfield admits that she is as hungry, metaphorically, as the people she documents. “The fact that I had everything I needed [growing up] and still didn’t feel like I had enough,” she says, “made me want to figure out why.”

The daughter of a doctor father and an eminent psychology professor mother, Greenfield grew up less wealthy than many of her L.A peers, but did attend a tony, exclusive school for 11th and 12th grades. A few years getting a degree in visual anthropology from Harvard, she returned to that high school to document the lives of wealthy teenagers, resulting in the powerful 1997 book “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.”

She followed up “Fast Forward” with the photography books “Girl Culture” and “Thin.” The latter, about women with eating disorders, was turned into an HBO documentary in 2006.

As a freelance photographer for The New York Times, GQ, Time and other publications, Greenfield was often called upon to revisit the subject of moneyed people, especially after the success of her 2012 documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” which told the story of David and Jackie Siegal, who were then building the largest single-family home in the U.S. The film earned her the U.S. Director Award at Sundance.

We see the Siegals again here, and it will gratify longtime Greenfield followers that there are plenty of chances to catch up with people we’ve wondered about — starting with the now-middle-aged subjects of “Fast Forward.”

Most of them have come to believe that a preoccupation with money leads to nothing but bad things, a perspective bolstered by the the topics Greenfield covers through the wealth lens: plastic surgery, misogyny, the sexualization of young girls, the commodification of the human body. Hedges is responsible for many of the film’s keenest overarching observations, noting the way the American dream has shifted from hard work and frugality to fame and fortune. It used to be we were keeping up with the Joneses, Greenfield notes. Now we’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians.

“Social mobility is fictitious,” Hedges says, calling TV “a form of violence that fuels this sense of inadequacy.”

“Generation Wealth” is frenetic, encompassing and meaty — some might say overstuffed. But the film’s structural excesses make sense given the subject matter. As one of the interviewees says, “If a lot is good, more is better.”

As a filmmaker, Greenfield seems to agree.

Liz Spikol is editorial director of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.

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