How long have we envied the lifestyles of the rich and the famous? These goals, both quantifiable and virtually unobtainable, have served as fuel for a wide majority of Americans. Director Lauren Greenfield has looked at wealth through decades of photography. From Los Angeles high schoolers to high-powered international businessmen, Greenfield notices a pattern in her subjects. They all covet wealth in disgusting fashion. The idea of coveting is as old as the Ten Commandments that warn against it. What Greenfield finds new is this capitalist machine that causes us to spend until we’re empty. Greenfield’s latest documentary, “Generation Wealth,” seeks to connect the dots from her past and present work to figure out why we are so obsessed with wealth. Luckily, Greenfield retains the wit and power of her photographs as she moves them into film.
This marks Greenfield’s second acclaimed theatrical documentary feature. “Queen of Versailles” from 2012 looked at the construction of the largest house in all of America amid the 2008 housing crisis. “Generation Wealth” samples moments from “Queen of Versailles” to contribute to the central thesis. People push themselves past their breaking points in order to physically manifest the wealth they wish to obtain. Greenfield assembles a cornucopia of subjects to connect her ideas on wealth. Some of them feel like redundancies. However, Greenfield seems especially skilled at weaving together a portrait that shows wealth comes in many different forms. The film bogs down at points, but always finds ways to bring audiences back into the action. In fact, the film rises to its highest points when it moves away from the sensational displays of wealth.
“Generation Wealth” deviates from expectations in interesting ways. The film begins as a check up on some of Greenfield’s subjects from an early 90s shoot she did on Los Angeles teenagers. The twenty-five years since the project gives these subjects a different outlook on the materialism and privilege they flaunted at the time. From there, Greenfield explores the topic with a more global mindset. When America abandoned the gold standard, how did that create a global ripple effect? As we devalued our money and increased the value of excess material possessions, did the rest of the world do the same? Greenfield goes around the world studying how greed, money and capitalism touches countries outside the US. One of the more fascinating sections involves a small Icelandic fisherman who turned to banking once that becomes a hot industry in the small country.
The documentary then makes its most ambitious turn of all. It looks at Greenfield herself. After seeing all manners of wealth, excess, plastic surgery and eating disorders, we’ve become conditioned to look at the extreme ways the American dream has warped and wrecked lives. Yet, how does this apply to a documentarian and her family’s own vision of the American dream? It turns out, Greenfield’s workaholic tendencies are her own manifestations of typical American excess. Some of the most raw and emotional moments come during the interviews she conducts with her own mother. Greenfield looks both at her privileged Los Angeles high school and the aftermath of her parent’s divorce as impetuses for this behavior.
The most successful documentaries engage the audience and urge them to look at their own behavior. By being both sprawling and personal, Greenfield forces us to look at how we are all complicit in this culture that prizes wealth. Wealth doesn’t just apply to more money. It can be more plastic surgery, getting even skinnier, working 80-100 hours a week. To sum it up, wealth puts happiness at an unobtainable reach that will keep us consuming. Comparisons are frequently drawn to Rome. As the fall of Rome was neigh, the rich were at their richest. There is worry that this capitalistic insanity could dethrone the US. However, if the whole world has become defined by extreme wealth, what does that mean for the state of Earth?