Now playing: Lauren Greenfield's 'Generation Wealth,' doc exploring cultural infatuation with material riches, and its consequences
One consequence -- the election of Donald Trump: 'He's kind of a symptom of this disease'
Among the colorful characters in Lauren Greenfield's new documentary Generation Wealth is Limo Bob, a man of considerable size who supplements his bulk with 33 pounds of neck chains. As his name suggests, Bob owns a fleet of limousines, including a "double-wide" Cadillac and one shaped like a Boeing 727.
At first glance Limo Bob might seem like a risible caricature of the opulence-obsessed American, whose life seems dedicated exclusively to vulgar materialism. But he's on the benign end of the individuals populating Greenfield's film, which examines the disturbing direction our society has been heading in for the past quarter century or more. The documentary sprang from the director's decision to pore through her photographic archive for a book -- a retrospective of 25 years of cultural anthropology, studying America's preoccupation with wealth, body image and social status.
A lot of times in my work I've kind of used the glossy colors and the aesthetics of popular culture to bring in the viewer, seduce the viewer and then deliver the underbelly on the backside.
"It wasn't about wanting to go back for its own sake," Greenfield told Nonfictionfilm.com, "but I really saw these nascent trends in the 90s in my early work that had gone on steroids and needed to be examined and put together in a kind of urgent way in terms of feeling like we were on an unsustainable path and really needed to deconstruct where we were and how we got here."
Generation Wealth is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and will expand in the coming days and weeks to Houston, Austin, Texas, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Toronto and many other cities (details here).
Along with Limo Bob, Greenfield's characters include:
"For me, wealth culture is about the value of wealth," Greenfield observed. "I learned this wasn't just about money. This was equally about 'fake it 'til you make it,' posing or having bling or the image, the fictitious kind of money. But also the other things that give us value in the culture, whether that's being thin or being beautiful or sexuality or fame or being aligned with a certain brand or being a brand."
Greenfield's investigation of wealth culture is by no means limited to the U.S.
"In [my] work] it kind of tracks back to starting in LA but really then it becomes American and then it becomes global. I think that the drivers are media -- a lot of which is made here -- globalism, branding," she commented. "One of the things I documented was even in the lives of the superrich, the 1-percent, there's these places that people go -- like Monaco and St. Barts -- where Brett Ratner and Russell Simmons and Martha Stewart and European aristocrats, Russian oligarchs, they mix in this kind of post-national world where these images of luxury then go to the rest of us. The Birkin Bag is kind of like a symbol of that." (The gallery above includes a picture Greenfield took in 1998 in St. Barts showing Ratner and Simmons -- two men now embroiled in #MeToo scandals).
In the documentary, Greenfield captures wealthy Chinese women who spend handsomely on language classes to learn how to properly pronounce Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana. She interviews investment banker Florian Homm, who amassed a fortune he estimated at $800 mil. before he was brought low by a fraud investigation. He now lives in relative freedom in his native Germany.
But the director does not draw a moral distinction between those with actual wealth and the great mass of people who merely wish they had it, and sometimes spend as if they did.
"You see in the movie that there's a trickle down effect of the desire for luxury," she noted. "I don't think we can even blame it on the 1-percent entirely in that the 1-percent are this tiny group. But it's the media and the popular culture that are accelerants of the 1-percent. It's by seeing it on television all the time and then people desiring it and then, for example, before the [financial] crash [of 2008] the banks making the credit available so people could live like they were rich even if they weren't."
Greenfield underscores, both in her photography and in the documentary, the corrosive impact of toxic materialism. For instance, in Generation Wealth she catches up with the aforementioned one-time porn star Kacey Jordan, who grew so dissatisfied with her life at one point that she attempted suicide.
Another woman in the film, a school bus driver from Virginia, nearly bankrupted herself by undergoing numerous plastic surgery procedures. Her obsession with her body seemingly drew her attention away from the psychological emergency facing her suicidal daughter.
Mijanou, likewise, now questions the objectification she experienced as a "hot bod" teen. Another Beverly Hills kid, the son of a rich rock star whom Greenfield photographed in his hard-partying days, reappears in the documentary as an adult having gone through rehab.
The film, perhaps surprisingly given the subject matter, does not have a political tone -- it feels more like a sociological document. But I asked Greenfield if it were not important to explore the structural aspect of wealth inequality -- the conditions in which the rich become richer and the great mass of people cope with stagnant wages, reduced class mobility and economic opportunity.
"I think that's not how I've analyzed it. But I think that is what's going on," Greenfield replied. "I think one of the things we've seen since Sundance and coming through to now is a lot of what's happened in government is playing this out even more, from the tax [reform bill], more inequality... And like Florian Homm says in the movie, 'We made the rules for us [the super-wealthy].' And actually that piece was not in the edit for a while and when the tax [bill] was in play, I realized it needed to be back in the movie. Because when the people in power are the 1-percent and then they're making the rules for a kind of kleptocracy it does become structural."
But she added, "It becomes structural but then the rest of us need to see the matrix that we're in and that's the part that is not structural in a way... There's so much inequality that billionaires are worried that people are going to rise up. But I think people don't rise up because they always imagine they'll be rich some day. That's kind of part of the American Dream."
No one represents the triumph of wealth culture more than Donald Trump, whose appeal as a media personality -- before his entrance into politics -- rested on the allure of his heavily marketed "fabulous lifestyle."
"His election happened in the later part of my journey but I felt like was a kind of validation of the importance of the things that I was documenting," Greenfield said. "He's the apotheosis of Generation Wealth and not just about money but about fame, about television, about image, about women and how beautiful women can be expressions of success, about 'fake it 'til you make it.'"
Greenfield added that her film "is not about Donald Trump or his rise. I feel like there are other people who will go deep into that and do a much better job. But I feel like what I did have to add to the conversation was a deep dive into the culture that made him possible, and that he's kind of a symptom of this disease."
She commented further, "I included [Trump] sparingly but towards the end he's in a campaign rally and he says, 'This isn't about me. It's about you.' And that's kind of what I wanted to leave the audience with, that we need to be responsible for this."
I asked Greenfield is her photographic work did not run the risk of glamorizing crass materialism -- of making the lifestyle she has documented appear irresistibly attractive.
"No... I don't think that's what people take away from the work," she responded. "A lot of times in my work I've kind of used the glossy colors and the aesthetics of popular culture to bring in the viewer, seduce the viewer and then deliver the underbelly on the backside. Queen of Versailles was a little bit like that. You start thinking you're going to laugh at these people and this ridiculous lifestyle and you end up kind of seeing that there's a little bit of Jackie [Siegel] in all of us and that the financial crash happened up and down the spectrum because of that... You can't go through the work and hear the stories and hear the characters and -- especially in this film -- see the kind of devastation in people's lives and think that we should just want money."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.