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Enough Is Never Enough: Generation Wealth
Daniel Theophanous , August 18th, 2018 10:16

Hedge fund managers, beauty pageant tweens, plastic surgery addicts, and a perfect recreation of the palace of Versailles deep in the Florida swamp. Welcome to Generation Wealth, a new documentary film by Lauren Greenfield

Photographer/ filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has been documenting the symptoms of materialism, capitalism and celebrity culture from the early 90s. Her investigations steered her into examining diverse themes such as eating disorders, plastic surgery addictions, aspirational tweens of LA with their $50,000 bar mitzvahs to even greater extremes, such as a grandiose recreation of Versailles in small-town Florida by the Seigel family (the basis of her award-winning 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles). Generation Wealth is a multi-platform project that Greenfield has been working on since 2008, a collection of images assembled for museum exhibition in 2017, a photographic book released earlier this year, and now a documentary film released through Dogwoof.

Just after graduating Harvard, Greenfield got her break photographing for the National Geographic in South America, but soon turned her attention to the anthropological study of the wealthy, materialistic teenagers of Los Angeles. This began a body of work called Fast Forward which included photographs of the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kate Hudson in their early teens. Generation Wealth is a carefully curated culmination of Greenfield’s work over the last 25 years, re-examining themes and people in a bid to scrutinise present day decadence and the unattainable fortunes of the few, which have reached new peaks in today’s Instagrammable world.

Greenfield revisits Jackie Seigel, whose husband David, the king of time-shares, managed to regain their lost riches from the 2008 economic crash. Now their Versailles reconstruction is almost complete. There is also photographic subject Suzanne, who initially was a status-obsessed Wall Street hedge fund manager. Now past 40, she has diverted all her efforts with the same feverish gusto on to having a child. We meet the adult star formerly known as Kacey Jordan, famous for her association with Charlie Sheen, her addiction to plastic surgery and her subsequent very public YouTube suicide attempts. Then there’s Eden Wood, six-year-old beauty pageant princess, the star of reality TV show Toddlers & Tiaras, where she first exclaimed that beauty means “that I get money, and I’ll be a superstar”, only for her pushy parents to realise the pressure proved psychologically detrimental to their child, eventually withdrawing her from pageanting all together.

The film travels the world over, to give a pandemic view of the trappings of excess. She sees a reformed banker turned fisherman in Iceland after the country’s economic collapse. She pays a visit to an etiquette teacher in China whose flat is decked out in all manner of Versace, teaching dinner protocols to affluent Chinese ladies. She visits a strip club in Atlanta where the strippers achieve a strange celebrity among their affluent clientele. Or the most cringeworthy of all, an interview with Greenfield’s Harvard alumni, the excruciatingly flashy Florian Homm, a German businessman who was charged with investment fraud in the US and now lives in exile in Germany. Homm is still very much in love with money, still looking the part in his luxury office setting, manspreading on a big old leather sofa, with his chunky gold watch, puffing away on a Cuban cigar. Greenfield shows the flip-side to Homm’s ostentatiousness, revealing the direct effects of his behaviour on his family by interviewing his son, who could not be more opposite. A down-to-earth young man, resigned to living under the shadow of his domineering larger-than-life father.

Greenfield then turns the camera on to herself and her own family, featuring interviews with her mum, husband, and children, exposing herself as a workaholic and absentee parent. Her own relentless career ambitions came at a personal cost, as her eldest son decrees “we got used to her not being around”. This personal strand is interwoven throughout the documentary, uncovering her own selfish shortcomings. It’s easy to observe the disproportionate debauchery of the lives of people like Homm or the Siegels, as it feels far-removed, but it’s when Greenfield focuses in on her own drama, that things are more piercing and possibly relatable to the majority of parents in the Western hemisphere. The infiltration of the world’s capitalistic malaise echoed into the everyday lives of ordinary people. However, aspects of this thread are at points visually problematic. There is a sheen of badly-edited-home-video about some of the scenes and some of the familial interactions are over-sentimental, contradicting the documentary’s overall aesthetic.

We are given a brief academic vantage point through former New York Times journalist and left-wing activist Chris Hedges, who ominously claims, “Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment they face death”. Which – granted – feels poignant, as he stresses the perils of a capitalistic society built on the foundations of ‘enough is never enough’, but he never really goes further to explain what this societal doom would look like or how it could be prevented. Furthermore, it plays into the underlying, all too obvious and rather basic crux of the documentary: the thought that no matter how much money, or in this case plastic surgery, career, babies, thinness, or Versace bling accrued, it can’t buy you happiness. It all feels at points rather preachy and all too general.

But it’s when these general observations are reflected in the various personal stories that the documentary comes to life. Scenes of opulence verging on the ridiculous, the tragic depiction of these detached gaudy characters is where the film’s virtues lie. It doesn’t feel voyeuristic either, as these figures crave an audience, relishing in the attention Greenfield’s camera is giving them. Her laidback and congenial attitude allows her to gain their trust as they readily divulge their ugly truths. Furthermore, she masterfully films in a non-judgemental fashion, her documenting is more matter-of-fact rather than accusatory or opinionated; her interviewees seem to wilfully do that all by themselves.

Generation Wealth heavily reminds me of the work of British photographer Martin Parr. The effervescence, the vividness of colour and the abundance of life as well as, thematically, his intimate, satirical, and anthropological look into modern life, are all things Greenfield expresses in her documentary. Despite a few glitches she successfully and effectively highlights what makes these people’s lives so conspicuous and that is that they have taken that life-altering step further. And even if their world is in disarray, from a certain filtered lens, it still looks great on camera.

Generation Wealth is available to view on demand, distributed by Dogwoof