Lauren Greenfield understands the power of privilege. The Boston-born, Harvard educated daughter of two Harvard graduates is one of contemporary photography’s most in-demand talents.
For the past quarter of a century, Greenfield has been meticulously documenting the lives of the super-rich – and those who aspire to be so. Her vivid images of plastic-surgery-hungry single mothers, disgraced bankers, strip club owners, the stoic wives of oligarchs, Icelandic fishermen, and pre-fame, pre-teen future reality TV behemoths are snapshots of a society teetering into fiscal and personal oblivion. Welcome to what Greenfield’s taken to calling Generation Wealth.
If 2017’s Phaidon-released Generation Wealth was a partial summation of Greenfield’s concern with what she tells me represents a “sea change in culture,” this year’s film of the same name sees the documentarian delving even deeper into the dark. It explores the recesses of an image-obsessed and troublingly aspirational collective psyche that’s almost indivisible from life lived in the golden hamster wheel of late-stage capitalism. Out here, in the rubble of the post-crash landscape, Greenfield says, we can see “the destruction and degradation of the shared values that used to hold us together.”
Those values, a set of previously ingrained morals that we might, if we were so inclined, describe as “the American dream,” are central to Greenfield’s work as a whole. Her previous documentary, 2012’s The Queen of Versaille, saw the photographer follow property magnate David Siegel and his socialite-cum-computer engineer wife Jackie in their quest to construct the largest single-family detached house in America. It is, in many ways, a film about the way reality and fantasy barely mingle, let alone fuse. By the end of the film, 2008’s recession has hit, construction is halted, pets are neglected, and staff find themselves out of work. The dream is over.
What we’ve seen, Greenfield argues, is a switch from “valuing hard work and frugality and discipline,” into sliding headfirst into a version of reality in which “bling, celebrity, and narcissism” reign supreme.
“The media is a big part of that change,” she says. “In the past 25 years people have started spending more time with the people they know on television rather than with their actual neighbours. They started to want what they saw on television rather than what they wanted in real life.” Suddenly, Americans no longer felt the need to keep up with the Joneses – now they had to keep up with the Kardashians.
Describing her analytical approach to photography as being “a little like practising psychiatry without a license,” Greenfield probes deep into what drives her subjects and how, ultimately, it all reverts back to the cold, hard, inescapable reality of money. And seen through Greenfield’s lens, money is an addiction.
Florian Homm, a sockless figure in loafers, is one of the project’s most memorable characters. Hollow-cheeked, wild-eyed, he is an addict. A cigar-chomping cypher of Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” mantra, Homm alternates between boldly proclaiming his love for money itself, to contritely running through the oldest myth in capitalism: all the money in the world can’t buy you love.
A former investment banker now seeking refuge from the FBI in Germany, Homm is the “quintessential projection” of the fiscal addict, the banker with a “golden number” in his head, a figure that’ll be reached and realised and relinquished.
“They get to the number and they want more and then there’s another number,” Greenfield says, equating it to the eating disorders that she’s documented through the years. “Money is a stand-in for something more than you have, and being someone other than you are. The addiction is a common one because it is very prevalent in our culture to think we can get all the things we want from money. And then we find out that, because none of that is really about money, that money itself can never satisfy any yearning.”
That sensation of an illusory kind of hole-filling, with money always being seen as some sort of salve, is elucidated best by Lil Magic, the owner of Magic City, the famous Atlanta strip club. The money, he says, as we watch chain-draped rappers throw thick wads of dollar bills at dancers, is an irrelevance. In strip clubs and shopping malls, operating theatres and sports car dealerships all that matters is the face. “You just fake it,” he says, dolefully, “till you make it.”
In Lil Magic’s world, and ours too, the image is as real as reality itself. We have swallowed postmodernism and its disruptions and discontents wholesale – we are trapped in the hall of mirrors.
Greenfield’s breakthrough was 1997’s Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, an intimate, revealing look at the lives of LA’s wealthy and well-manicured high schoolers, children brandishing hundred dollar bills and luxury watches. It is the beginning of a narrative that, as everything seems to in the now, ends with the election of Donald Trump, a man who Greenfield calls “the apotheosis of Generation Wealth.”
Trump, with his skyscrapers built on mountains of debt, his 24K gold penthouse, and his propensity for grandiosity is, she says, “a symptom of all we see in Generation Wealth. We can only look to ourselves to fix it. There is a deep, deep cultural problem, and it’s like Lil Magic says: we don’t know the difference between reality and entertainment anymore.”
Generation Wealth is at turns gaudily entertaining – a maximal, hyperreal version of peering into suburbia’s net curtains on a winter evening’s walk – and deeply troubling. A shrewd critique of capitalism’s ultimate failure, it offers no alternatives, because how can it? What we see is a set of broken people, lives marred by what money has done to all of us. They have grabbed and aspired, reached and failed. They have traded, on some fundamental level, their very being for the promises money makes. Money has betrayed them. Watching the film, we begin to recognise ourselves – and this is probably the most troubling thing of all.
Generation Wealth is currently showing at Sundance London.
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