In 2012, the documentary The Queen of Versailles painted a famously bleak picture of wealth in America: It follows David and Jackie Siegel, a Florida couple who were in the process of building an absurdly large mansion when the 2008 recession tanked their fortune. The film’s director, Lauren Greenfield, had initially sent out to document the construction of the largest single-family home in the US; instead, she watched as the project ground to a halt, the household help was laid off, and the children and dogs were left to run amok in the massive, incomplete home.
At the Berlinale last week, Greenfield showed her second documentary on capitalism and its discontents: Generation Wealth, a wide-ranging and ultimately personal assessment of our contemporary need for more, more, more. The film spans 25 years, featuring interviews with a wide range of characters — strip club managers, single mothers, Los Angeles bon vivants, sex workers, and child pageant queens, to name a few — whom Greenfield visits and revisits, studiously examining the impact of addiction to wealth and its trappings. Some of her interviewees, like the journalist Chris Hedges, offer a detached assessment, while others are actively living through the fallout of their choices over the years. All make compelling cases that this addiction is getting worse.
Some of Greenfield’s subjects reflect and change over their time on camera. Others don’t. One woman, who was voted the “best physique” at Beverly Hills High School in the late 90s, is now a meditative, thoughtful 42-year-old; another woman, a hard-driving hedge fund executive, appears to simply transfer an obsession with work and money to her young daughter, birthed via surrogate. Mickie Wood, the mother of Toddlers and Tiaras star Eden, pulls her daughter from the pageant world in the course of the documentary, but says she’d do it all again given the choice. An Icelandic sailor-turned-banker-turned sailor seems completely relieved his mid-life career change is over. Kacey Jordan, depicted as both a current and former porn actress, is crystal clear about her ex-career: “I was addicted.”
What the documentary posits is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s more money or status or fame or success. Too many of us simply want too much, to the exclusion of values like family, generosity, humility, or simply balance.
After a festival screening, I sat down with Greenfield to ask her about where those pathologies come from, and what it might mean for us. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
BROADLY: The film covers multiple obsessions: with wealth, with youth, with success. Where do you think these come from?
Lauren Greenfield: For me, and why I started probing with my mother [in a first for Greenfield, she also trains the camera on her own career and family] is that addiction comes from having a trauma, having a hole you’re trying to fill. In the case of beauty or fame, we’re trying to fill it with something that can’t satisfy and doesn’t actually fix the problem, so we always want more and more. [There are] insecurities, anxiety. For me, I think my parents’ divorce made me feel insecure in a way that drove me to work. Insecurity is part of our machine of capitalism.
Capitalism thrives on finding fear, finding insecurity: You can fix this if I sell you this diet or sell you this pair of jeans. That’s a great way to sell things. And yet the way it works on the side of the consumer is once we have that, we need something else.
Do you think this perverse culture surrounding wealth and the trappings of it is worse in the US than in other places?
I think it’s worse in the US, and I think it’s worse in LA. It’s kind of like being in the eye of the storm, and yet it’s coming soon to a theater near you, in Europe and Asia and a lot of other places. I think what we see in the film is that the drivers are globalism and media, oftentimes American media, but media that goes everywhere, along with branding and the values of corporate capitalism, which are international.
I think in the US, and LA in particular, we have weaker institutions that provide countervailing values. And in Europe I think the institutions of religion, tradition, and family are still stronger, so they provide a little bit of resistance to popular culture and the values of capitalism, but not much. I think a lot of parents will say, ‘Oh, I see this in my kids.’
Is social media saturation making these problems worse for younger generations?
That’s kind of the point of the movie. We’re dancing on the deck of the Titanic. It’s like the fall of Rome. It’s just getting worse and worse. I think social media and screen addiction, with kids, is something that we’re seeing now, that is in a way worse than anything we have seen. We know it’s an addiction with your endorphins and the screen, and at the same time, we’re exposing kids to pornography and violence. I think the way people are projecting themselves on these media is the extreme extent of it. I think everything from the last 25 years has gotten worse and worse, but it’s almost like exponential.
How do you build trust with your characters? Some have to visit some pretty unspeakable moments.
I just try to find some common ground and be clear that I am not judgmental in my approach. I think I stayed true to that in this film — I think I’m critical of the culture but not the individuals and their reaction to it… I think that if we’re judging, we’re not getting the point. The point is that we’re all complicit in this story, and we need to think about ourselves, and not see people as freaks or as the other.
You grew up in Los Angeles and attended Crossroads during high school. What was it like witnessing the rise of the Kardashians [a high school shot of Kim appears in the book version of Generation Wealth]?
In a generation, we’ve gone from comparing ourselves with our neighbors to comparing ourselves with the people we see on TV, who are living much more affluent lifestyles. And that makes us want those things. That idea — that we’ve gone from keeping up with the Joneses to keeping up with the Kardashians — understanding that made them a much more powerful signifier in my work. Before I put it all together, [Kim] was just another reality star. I had never really thought about those words, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and how profound that is.