In 2012, I remember watching photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Queen of Versailles with morbid fascination. The American Dream has a malleable definition, adaptable to any one person and their goal no matter how shortsighted or ridiculous. In fact, the more insane the better, this is America after all. If your dream is building the largest house in the country, based on Versailles, well, that’s your prerogative. Greenfield’s career has been unexpectedly focused on people’s obsessions with excess, and her new film Generation Wealth acts as a vehicle for the filmmaker herself to make sense of her life’s work, as well as her own struggles with always wanting more.
Generation Wealth begins with Greenfield’s first assignment embedded in a remote village in South America for National Geographic. The story was scrapped, and Greenfield was devastated, not just of the professional setback, but also because the experience in the village was a difficult one. Unable to connect personally with her subjects, Greenfield wondered if her photography days were over. Instead, she started working with a topic she knew well growing up surrounded by the affluence of Los Angeles: wealth. From here, the documentary takes audiences on a survey of Greenfield’s journey through greed and excess, featuring interviews alongside her own photography on decades of projects ranging from rich kids in LA, celebrities, women struggling with eating disorders, porn stars, luxury service providers, workaholic hedge-fund managers, and more. The idea of “wanting more” is what unites them all, and Greenfield even throws herself in the mix by interviewing members of her family and coming to terms with her own tendencies to put work ahead of other worthy endeavors.
What makes the subjects of this documentary interesting are their relationships with Greenfield. Many of them have been photographed by her before, some at the height of their wealth accumulation, and are now looking back at the experience with a fresh perspective. But if you are looking for a moral condemnation from Greenfield or her subjects on greed you won’t really find it here. Nor will you find a coherent argument for the cause of our culture’s rabid obsession with wealth that shows no signs of stopping. Even though most of her subjects have lost what they once had, or have changed life priorities that caused a decrease in their overall wealth, there is an understanding that being ambitious has consequences. And those that can accept the consequences are the ones that rise from the ashes and live to tell the tale. But I don’t think anyone necessarily regrets the crazy ride, least of all Greenfield who, despite having to listen to her young children tell her on camera they feel bad when she’s away for weeks on end, eagerly hops on a plane to oversee production of her latest book.
Generation Wealth, like her other films before, is an obsessively watchable meditation of an artist seeking to understand her own place in her work and what that has meant for her personally and her family. The irony of this film including a book and show release is undoubtably not lost on anyone, Greenfield included. I think it’s highly the point.
Generation Wealth opens today at the Ritz V.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.