From rich kids to porn stars to hedge fund managers, the subjects of Lauren Greenfield’s photographs and documentaries all have one thing in common. They have more than they did before, and they want more than they have now. As one succinctly puts it, “If a lot is good, more is better.”
That includes, most intriguingly, Greenfield herself.
Greenfield has been chronicling the lifestyles of the rich and famous throughout her 30-year career, most notably in the 2012 documentary “Queen of Versailles,” which looked at one billionaire couple’s attempt to build the biggest house in America.
Her new film, “Generation Wealth,” summarizes Greenfield’s career looking at wealth’s seductive and corrosive effect on contemporary society. It’s a bit of a patchwork, hopping around from subject to subject, revisiting people she photographed years ago and meeting new ones.
In a way, “Generation Wealth” reminded me of Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson,” which was a collage of footage she shot as a cinematographer around the world. But while Johnson’s structure was elliptical, forcing the viewer to make thematic connections between, say, a hospital in Darfur and a death row trial in Texas, Greenfield is more obvious.
But it’s unnecessary. Confronted by such a visual orgy of excess and gold-plated extravagance, we don’t need journalist Chris Hedges to pop in periodically to hammer home that materialism is soul-sucking, do we?
While the pieces don’t always fit together, they’re often interesting on their own, especially as subjects now older and wiser reflect on their hedonistic days. Former porn star Kacey Jordan (who was once linked in the tabloids to Charlie Sheen) tells horror stories of her days in adult film. She seems happier now working a minimum-wage job at a tanning salon in Oregon.
German hedge fund manager Florian Homm, who fled the U.S. following investment fraud charges, smokes big cigars as he tells about a life of unimaginable wealth. And yet, he still ended up alone, living half a world away from his family.
One of the subjects of Greenfield’s 1993 study of rich Los Angeles kids, “Fast Forward,” is now a mom who has rejected all the messages she was taught by pop culture. In the end, the message of “Wealth” doesn’t get much more complicated than “the best things in life are free.” Because Greenfield doesn’t go too deeply into any one subject, as she did in “Versailles,” the stories in “Generation Wealth” tend to follow the same pattern of heedless avarice followed by rueful wisdom.
Which it makes it more interesting when she turns the camera back on herself and her own life chasing these subjects around the world. She did it for her career and for her art, but, she wonders, how much different is her artistic ambition than her subjects’ greed?
Greenfield’s movie doesn’t quite come up with a satisfying answer for this, other than the work was its own reward, and she still seems to have a good relationship with her husband and sons. But looking at other kinds of ambition beyond that for fame or fortune broadens the scope of “Generation Wealth” in an intriguing way. There are lots of things in life, even worthy things, that one can get a little too greedy for.