Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, Generation Wealth, is a harsh condemnation of consumer culture and voyeuristic largesse. The Amazon Studios release, which is premiering out-of-competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is also an extended exploration and celebration of Greenfield’s 500-page book of the same name, a weighty and glossy tome with a list price of $75 and now available on Amazon.com.
Ironic? Hypocritical? Opportunistic? Merely a symptom of the perversion of the American Dream that Greenfield is attempting to depict? At times I felt each of those three sentiments while watching Generation Wealth, easily the most ambitious film of the director’s career, but also the most infuriating for all of the sociological and psychological points that it tries to make in ways that are too often unearned or poorly defended.
An ambitious and also infuriating look at the pursuit of riches.
If you don’t know Greenfield from docs like The Queen of Versailles and Thin or photo-centric chronicles like Girl Culture and Fast Forward, Generation Wealth has you covered, because like the aforementioned book, it’s a bit of a career omnibus. See, Greenfield has been looking back over her work and she’s been able to identify some common themes that, let’s be honest, aren’t as retroactively complicated to identify as she makes it seem. Greenfield has always been interested in the idea of American society on the verge of a bloated collapse, the way an ethos that was formerly about each generation simply trying to live a life improved from the generation before was bastardized into a pursuit for unlimited wealth and how that compulsive greed led to the devaluing of family and individual identity. She’s been particularly fascinated with how women often end up paying the steepest price, becoming commodities themselves, forced to take shortcuts to extended youth and beauty because of expectations that rarely extend to men.
Generation Wealth finds Greenfield making connections within her work, including revisiting several of the high-living teen wastrels depicted in Fast Forward, 20 years further along in their lives, some crushed by their early exposure to wealth, some purified by it. She checks in at several points over the years with past photographic subjects like Suzanne, a status-obsessed hedge fund executive who puts off having children until it becomes a new obsession after she turns 40, and Cathy, whose trip for a barrage of elaborate plastic surgery in Brazil at the age of 31 leads to sad results. We get to know the adult star formerly known as Kacey Jordan, thrust into fame by her association with Charlie Sheen and run through a sad, gross ringer. Greenfield taps into her Harvard past for interviews with notorious German businessman Florian Homm, whose contempt for American regulatory procedure is only somewhat grosser than the story of his buying his then-15-year-old son a Dutch prostitute, a tale the son gets to tell with his new girlfriend sitting and blushing nearby. Greenfield visits Iceland ahead of its economic collapse. She goes to Atlanta and spends a lot of time at a strip club where the strippers achieve a strange celebrity.
Along the way, though, Generation Wealth shifts and increasingly becomes a story of Greenfield’s own obsessions, both with those connections in her work and with work itself, as she turns the camera on her two sons and listens as they admit her frequent absences have impacted them. She also interviews her parents about their own ambitions as well as how their legacy and desire for upward mobility shaped her personality.
Generation Wealth does some complicated things very well. It lures you into treating a lot of its subjects as nasty, laughable caricatures. You’ll snort at things they say and roll your eyes at things they do and you’ll think you’re hating every person in the documentary. Then almost every story has an abrupt shift and even if you see absolutely every gear moving, it’s hard not to sympathize and even, in unpleasant moments, to empathize. I think Greenfield has to make a lot of flimsy equivalencies to compare her addiction to work and her choices with a guy absconding with millions and becoming an international fugitive or the couple from Queen of Versailles pouring wealth they didn’t have into an money pit, but it’s a tactic that helps bridge the gap between the other carnivalesque characters onscreen and the audience.
The structural problem with Generation Wealth is that on a functional level, the culmination of the documentary is Greenfield’s book. That’s not a satisfying conclusion. It’s self-aggrandizing and undercuts all of the realizations we were supposed to think Greenfield was having about herself. So the documentary works with other themes. With journalist and professor Chris Hedges as the lone expert talking head, Generation Wealth floats a Fall of Rome thesis that indicts TV, pornography and Birkin bags in a chain of complicity leading to Donald Trump’s election as president. It’s an over-obvious point, but this is a documentary in which Greenfield claims to have only just “realized” that the unfinished palace in Queen of Versailles was a symbol, so nothing is too obvious. Unfortunately, that thread fizzles. And how much credit for profundity do we give for an across-the-board realization that money, it turns out, cannot buy you love?
Generation Wealth succeeds in its whiplash, globe-spanning look at the roller-coaster of soul-devouring narcissism and wealth, and it also finds depth in Greenfield’s self-examination. Maybe for it to stick any of its thematic or ideological landings, I’d have to buy the book.
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Director-Writer: Lauren Greenfield
Producers: Frank Evers, Lauren Greenfield and Wallis Annenberg
Executive Producers: Regina K. Scully, Lilly Hartley & Jeffrey Tarrant and Geralyn Greyfous
Editors: Aaron Wickenden, Michelle Witten, Victor Livingston, Dan Marks
Cinematographers: Robert Chappell, Lauren Greenfield, Shana Hagan, Jerry Risius, Lars Skree
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)