Solo show at Annenberg Space for Photography in LA documents 'influence of affluence'; Greenfield says, 'It's not a pretty picture'
Photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield's new multimedia show -- Generation Wealth -- is a bracing look at the chief preoccupations of our culture: wealth, self-image, "beauty" and celebrity.
"I apologize in advance for presenting a dark vision of where we are," Greenfield said Thursday night as she opened her solo exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography in LA, "but the intention is meant as a provocation about who we want to be."
Greenfield, who explored related themes in her documentaries The Queen of Versailles (2012) and Thin (2006), called the show "the culmination of a 25 year journey."
Though this journey has sometimes felt like watching the decline of western civilization I hope it can serve as a cautionary tale as well as a sociological document.
"Though this journey has sometimes felt like watching the decline of western civilization I hope it can serve as a cautionary tale as well as a sociological document," she told the large crowd at the opening. Some of the subjects of her work were on hand, along with celebrities and fellow documentary filmmakers.
"Ilona, a photographer and former model originally from Latvia, in the mezzanine library of her home, which so far contains only copies of a self-published book of her fashion photographs, Moscow, 2012." © Lauren Greenfield (image from the Annenberg Space for Photography exhibition, Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield)
The ambitious exhibit includes 195 photographs, multimedia projections and a captivating short documentary. Phaidon will publish a companion monograph, "Lauren Greenfield: Generation Wealth," next month (it is available on site now at the museum). And a feature-length documentary is coming later this year from Amazon Studios.
"The show is not really about wealth. It's about the infuence of affluence. It's about the aspiration to wealth and a wealth very broadly defined in the new American Dream and its export, including the currency of fame, the currency of branding, the currency of the body, of youth, the currency of having money and what that brings," Greenfield stated in her opening remarks.
That idea was seconded by Cinny Kennard, the executive director of the Annenberg Foundation, who introduced Greenfield.
"Generation Wealth, folks, is not about the top 1-percent and how they spend their money; it's about all of us, me included," Kennard said. "In today's world we're surrounded by the pressure to appear and to feel more affluent, which has come to mean that we're not just prosperous but we're also younger and more happier and we're attractive and we're more desired."
Sections of the exhibit focus on what might be categorized as conspicuous consumption, while others document plastic surgery and the pursuit of youth, the commoditization of the female body, the fascination and glorification of celebrity, and the disaster of the 2008 financial meltdown which foreclosed on so many American dreams (although said disaster obviously did little to curtail our pursuit of wealth and material goods).
"I've also been obsessed by the fact that Kim Kardashian, who I first photographed at 12, became a mainstream star by starting with a sex tape," Greenfield noted. "And I also can't stop thinking about the corinthian columns and gilded furniture that are the favored aesthetic of our president, who is apparently putting gold drapes in the White House."
While this work is not just about the Birkin bag, Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump it is most definitely about the culture that made all three possible.
Greenfield added, "While this work is not just about the Birkin bag, Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump it is most definitely about the culture that made all three possible."
There is some irony, of course, in throwing a lavish opening in a very wealthy part of town for an exhibit on the obsession with wealth and status (an irony I'm sure was not lost on Greenfield). But the reality is these materialistic aspirations permeate every region of the country and indeed have been exported abroad, as shown in photographs and in Greenfield's documentary short.
"I was convinced that now is the time to hold a mirror up to ourselves and try to see as clearly as possible," Greenfield said. "It's not a pretty picture but Photoshop or Botox may not be the answer either."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.