Twenty four-karat toilets in China, a Birkin bag party in Mexico, debutante balls in Moscow that are sponsored by Maserati: It may be easy to spot the extreme decadence in places where luxury consumption is relatively novel. But as much as Lauren Greenfield’s latest documentary, Generation Wealth, exposes the heights of excess abroad, the crux of her focus is how mired conspicuous consumption is with the myth of the American Dream.
“Both critic and participant,” the director chronicles 25 years of indulgent living across race, class, and culture, starting with the photojournalism she pursued at her former high school in the early 90s. From images of go-go dancers at a Sunset Strip Bar Mitzvah to 13-year-olds casually flashing $100 bills, this early footage suggests Los Angeles itself birthed an ethos of boundless consumerism that has since metastasized across the globe. “It was almost like the American Dream had turned into a quest for fame and fortune,” reflects Greenfield in voiceover, “and we had left behind the values of hard work, frugality, and discretion that had defined our parents’ generation.”
By 2016, this quest had taken on pathological proportions, and Greenfield doesn’t shy from implying that our national obsession with money paved the way for Trump to ascend his political throne. The climax of Generation Wealth is arguably also its tragic nadir: the economic crash of 2008, in which aerial views of abandoned cul de sacs merge with shots of domestic detritus in Dubai to a former GM factory worker in Ohio, whose home has just been foreclosed upon. But rather than learn a collective lesson, we elected a leader for whom self-worth and the bottom line are virtually indistinguishable.
“Wealth is more than money,” says Greenfield about half-way through her film. “It's whatever gives us value. Beauty, branding, youth.” What becomes Baccarat clear in Generation Wealth is how each of these virtues can also be bought—and the price we pay, as both individuals and a people, in the process.
VICE spoke with Greenfield on the phone about the film, which hits theaters nationwide on July 20. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
VICE: Your doc seems eerily prescient of the ethos that put Trump in office. In editing 25 years of photographic footage, how did you determine how to incorporate his image?
Lauren Greenfield: Trump’s election happened about midway through the film edits. His rise was really the ultimate expression of a lot of the things that I’d been documenting for so long. He represented so many of the values, and in a way was a validation of my obsession with wealth culture and its importance. All of the sudden the things we thought were relegated to reality television or popular culture were part of our government.
I didn’t want this to be a movie about Donald Trump, but wanted to show the culture that made him possible, like that clip from a rally of his where he says to the crowd, “This isn’t about me. This is about you.” In other words, he’s the symptom, not the disease. We need to engage in some critical self-reflection to what made him possible, to think back harder and see ourselves in a different way.
When he was elected president, did it change the way you saw your project?
It made me feel that the project was more important, more urgent. There are parts of the film that feel very dire—as though we’re zooming toward the apocalypse. When Trump was elected, I knew I had to include that as a possibility—everything going in a completely unsustainable direction, for the economy, for the community, for our souls.
But on the other hand, I think the election influenced the film’s third act, where there’s a lot more hope. I felt really buoyed by insights of the subjects who had had these terrible journeys, but had learned something along the way. I felt like I had also learned something along the way. In a way, the terrible crashes—both financial and personal—were like hitting rock bottom in the addiction metaphor, but then allowing the possibility for change and for agency.
I didn’t want this to be a movie about Donald Trump, but wanted to show the culture that made him possible
In following so many different subjects in this film, you come across as critical of the zeitgeist, but not the individuals themselves. How did you go about that?
First of all, I’m usually photographing and filming people that I like—that I identify with or empathize with in some way. I try to show that in this film by showing the connections between my own life and the people and phenomenon I was drawn to. I tried to really show why people do the things they do, and show it from their point of view. One of the things I love about film is that, even more than photography, it allows you to walk in somebody’s shoes and empathize with them. With the stories in this film, you might begin by thinking somebody is extreme or crazy or has screwed-up values, but by the end, you hopefully understand why they made the choices they did. By including myself, I wanted the audience to feel that this problem isn’t just about somebody else; it’s about you and it’s about me. We’re all complicit in it.
In terms of a technique, I really just try get to know people and show their humanity. I am critical in that I’m criticizing the culture that influences us, but I’m very grateful to the people who allow me into their lives to see it.
Watching the film, one can sense the great amount of trust across so many of the connections you forge. Were there any subjects for whom you felt the greatest amount of empathy?
Empathy-wise, I really felt for both Kathy and Daveney, as they had such hard stories. Even though everybody in the film has pretty tough roads, the women get the harder shake than the men. But I also really felt such love for the kids I photographed in the beginning of my career, with Fast Forward, and it was so exciting to see them 20-something years later as parents. With Mijanou, G-Mo, and Paris, I was so proud of them—even though I didn’t have the right to be. They had had such tough upbringings in the Hollywood-influenced world of LA. It had marked them so much, and yet they found their own way—their own agency. They learned their own lessons and tried to do something different with their kids.
That’s the real American Dream, trying to do better by your own children than you had yourself. The hope in the movie comes from the children, even though in the beginning of the 90s and in my career it seemed like the children were really screwed up.
You include your two sons in the film. Do you feel like it’s easier raising young men than women in this era of excess?
Throughout this project, I felt that women’s bodies, and their exploitation, were the ultimate degradation and cost of capitalism. But I also felt that my prior work on gender and girls was kind of a case study for capitalism. Capitalism is gender blind; it just wants to sell you stuff. Women, because of body image insecurity and other vulnerabilities, are more prey to that exploitation—but so are children, the poor, minorities, or anyone who’s in a weaker position. I don’t think capitalism exploits women uniquely, but I do think they have been exploited to a much higher degree.
With my own boys, I do think it’s easier for them than girls. But I also think that, instead of it getting easier for girls, it’s getting worse for boys. In the movie, you see boys in Atlanta who don’t have any money spending $700 on shoes. Whether it’s Axe body spray or the Supreme brand, capitalism is figuring out how to sew insecurity in boys too.
One of the ironies your film picks up on is that former generations did not value wealth the way we do now. The whole concept of “Making America Great Again” is a total fallacy in terms of greatness indebted to unregulated capital and accumulation. What ironies surprised you when putting together this film?
I think the ultimate irony is Trump becoming president—this reality star who espoused all the values of “Generation Wealth,” from celebrity to real estate to a love for gold to his belief that wealth made you a higher being. The fact that he, a narcissist, would reach the highest office, which is meant to be an office of public service, is also an irony. It was like life imitating art.
There were also a lot of tragic ironies that happened with the subjects of the film—some of them too unbelievable to even fully contemplate. And then there’s the irony of my own story, going on this journey looking at other people, and then coming back to look at myself as well, how the issues of legacy and agency and choices and values came up in my own life.
Toward the end, you compare the adrenaline of your own obsession with work with the obsessions of the subjects you document.
I tried not to compare myself directly to the subjects, because I didn’t want to compare their life-and-death struggles with my ordinary ones. And yet, when you’re in the throes of addictive behavior, there is a similarity. There are consequences for other people. Ultimately, I think the film is trying to expose the psychology behind what gives us that drive. Everybody in the film has some trauma or emptiness that they’re trying to heal or satisfy—through whatever wealth or status they’re pursuing.
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