“I often look at the extremes to understand the mainstream,” says artist and photographer Lauren Greenfield in her latest film, , which examines obsessions with wealth, status, youth, and beauty. The overstuffed feature spans the entirety of Greenfield’s 25-year career, and is at once a morality tale, an economics lesson, and, unexpectedly, an autobiography.
One might at first expect a surface-level take on the antics of the rich and famous—and indeed there are characters like the blinged-out “Limo Bob,” who wears 33 pounds of gold and diamonds and “love[s] Old World elegance.” But the film ultimately proves to be a far more emotional journey, thanks to Greenfield’s analysis of her own life choices. Just days after her son Noah’s birth, Greenfield, unwilling to let motherhood derail her career, accepts a ten-day assignment in China.
Interviewed as a teenager, Noah admits to having felt abandoned due to Greenfield’s frequent travels. She examines herself with the same critical lens she applies to figures like 6-year-old Eden Wood, the beauty queen who “would have money as big as this room,” or to the Gorden Gekko-esque businessman Florian Homm, living in Germany after being charged with investment fraud in the US, or to David and Jackie Siegel, who starred in Greenfield’s previous feature, , about the couple’s attempt to build the largest private home in the US.
Greenfield has been working on different iterations of the “Generation Wealth” project since 2008. It was prompted by that year’s economic crash and became a book from Phaidon Press, also titled , published in May 2017. An exhibition of the same name, organized by the Annenberg Space for Photography, has traveled to venues including New York’s International Center of Photography, and is currently on view at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo.
The documentary includes photos and footage from early in Greenfield’s career. It goes as far back as far back to her days shooting the wealthy teenagers in her hometown of Los Angeles. (At one point Greenfield unwittingly captured a young Kim Kardashian attending a school dance.) The subjects span at least three continents and include a Las Vegas casino hostess, a Botox-obsessed hedge-fund investor determined to have a baby, a high-priced etiquette teacher for Chinese women, and the debutante daughters of Russian oligarchs.
“In terms of the craft and the structure, [putting together the film] was really hard. There were long periods where it wasn’t working at all,” Greenfield said at a Q&A following a screening of the film in New York. At one point during production, Greenfield tacked up 500 cards, each representing a potential character. “My editor was completely freaked out,” she said.
Though it might have been easier to create a cohesive narrative if she had focused on fewer individual stories, Greenfield said she wanted to show the audience the big picture. “People from these diverse backgrounds and places were exhibiting these same behaviors,” she said.
The film turns particularly heartbreaking when Greenfield checks back in with some of her subjects from years past. Cathy, a single mother, became homeless after being unable to pay off her plastic surgery “vacation” in Brazil, and experienced an unimaginable personal tragedy. Homm, the banker accused of fraud, breaks down in regret over how his obsession with wealth damaged his relationship with his family.
Accordingly, can be a bit of a downer. “Do you see hope out of this, or are we really just fucked?” one audience member asked after the screening.
“It does feel like we’re kind of hurtling toward the apocalypse,” Greenfield admitted, adding that Donald Trump’s election influenced the direction of the film. (Footage from the president’s campaign rallies and former reality show, , has been incorporated into the film.) “I wanted to show the culture that made him possible. He was the symptom of a diseased culture.”
The writer and professor Chris Hedges appears often in the film, arguing that the US as we know it is in its death throes. “These are the images of a society in extraordinary decline,” he says.