Generation Wealth: Filthy Lucre Live, by David Bax
I watched Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth in a screening room on Rodeo Dr. in Beverly Hills. During its tour through conspicuous consumption, I recognized on the screen the stores that were just outside and up the street. I looked at them again, after the movie, while waiting for the bus, reflecting on the fact that, as easy and fun as it can be to mock the ludicrous eccentricities and values of the uber-rich, even my public transit-riding self is a part of the same world as they are, subject to the consequences of what they’ve wrought and, if I’m honest with myself, sometimes a little jealous of them. Greenfield has successfully avoided placing her subjects in a fishbowl for us to point and laugh at. Instead, she’s made friends with them and tried to see into their souls, which are the same as ours.
Greenfield has been documenting wealth around the world for decades, either through her photography or through films like 2012’s The Queen of Versailles. Generation Wealth is a kind of anthology or memoir, tracking her subjects and her assignments through time and placing them alongside her own life and her relationships with her parents, her husband and her children. Much of the film is taken up either by interviews with people she once photographed (some of them still rich, some of them not) or by footage of her interacting with her family, to the extent that she can do so from behind the lens of the camera that often seems permanently attached to her face.
Even with Greenfield’s considerable empathy, we’re still given a few opportunities to chuckle at the ludicrousness of people with more money than they know what to do with. Just like The Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth is not without the occasional moment of amused gawking. Early on, we meet a woman who has built a highly successful business out of teaching newly, staggeringly wealthy Chinese people the ways of the upper crust, including lessons on how to pronounce the names of all the major fashion houses. Later we see a man who has an enormous, Persian-style rug with a likeness of Lenin stitched into it, an item which I at least hope is intended to be funny.
Of course, the specter of Gordon Gekko is raised and, with it, the reminder that not everyone is as appalled as I am by the character’s iconic “Greed is good” speech. Greenfield herself does not aim to politicize but her desire to understand her subjects as whole people lets her include their own politics. No one disagrees that America is in the midst of economic inequality unrivaled by any other developed nation. But is that because we abandoned the gold standard and no longer value fiscal responsibility, as one interviewee says? Or is it because we have cultishly devoted ourselves to an increasingly unfettered form of capitalism that commodifies everything and regards wealth as a virtue? As another of the film’s subjects points out, Harvard, our most prestigious school, is not a bastion of intellectualism but rather the “West Point of capitalism.” Again, though, Greenfield brings this all back to the personal; whatever sickness has taken hold of the money-obsessed people she’s documenting, are her own pathologies (eating disorders, work addiction) less toxic? Does she think she’s better than them?
If she did, she wouldn’t have spent so much time training her camera so pitilessly on herself. Generation Wealth is no exposé or polemic. More than anything else, it’s a personal essay. Everything she observes is filtered through her own personal experience, especially as a late twentieth century child of the American bourgeoisie, almost close enough to real wealth to touch it.
Generation Wealth suffers in comparison to The Queen of Versailles due to its lack of that film’s singular focus. Yet it ultimately succeeds because, just as with Versailles, Greenfield maintains her empathy for even the most ludicrous of people. They are, after all, still people. When a mother who has devoted a large portion of her life, money and body to cosmetic plastic surgery despairs about her daughter cutting herself, “Why would you deface your body?”, Greenfield is aware of the irony. But she’s also aware of the pain underneath that statement, encouraging us to lay down our smirks and quips and find it in ourselves to feel it too.