Generation Wealth (2018). 108 minutes. Directed by Lauren Greenfield. Featuring Jackie Siegel, Florian Homm, Kacey Jordan, Eden Wood, and Chris Hedges.
Money Talks: The Surprising Intimacy of Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth.
Lauren Greenfield withholds very little in her fittingly loud, far-reaching but nonetheless intimate documentary Generation Wealth. In her opening montage of the outrageous, Chinese students are schooled to perfect their pronunciations of luxury brands; an American bus driver is operated on in Brazil, where cheap plastic surgery comes without anesthetics; and Florian Homm, a German businessman turned fugitive, boasts his limitless capacities to spend. “I looove money,” he says in a near whisper while dragging on a cigar. In under five minutes, Greenfield compiles the outpourings of global excess. Wealth, here, is not just the amassing of funds, but that of language, youth, beauty, sex, and power.
Greenfield has documented people and their unfettered extravagances through film and photography for more than two decades. Generation Wealth, her first documentary since the acclaimed Queen of Versailles about the building of (and premature foreclosure on) America’s largest home at the height of the US housing crisis, is a survey of this work. In interviews with her former subjects, including Versailles’ timeshare mogul David Siegel and his trophy-wife Jackie, they discuss wealth behavior and Greenfield identifies it as addiction, revealing the transient rush born of consuming more—and the latent similarities between a Wall Street investment banker, an adult film star, women with severe eating disorders, moneyed wives of Russian oligarchs, and the fame-saturated Los Angeles youth.
These findings are hardly epiphanies. Theorists like Marx and Bourdieu have spoken to the intersections of social, political, and physical capitals since the 1800’s, and capitalist exploits—nefarious big business, the decline of quality and the boom of profit, and plutocracy—practically make up a sub-genre of contemporary documentary.
However, the depth of this project, and Greenfield’s work more broadly, is not in her cataloguing of opulence, but in her simultaneous renderings of fragility and loss. Following traditions of Renaissance portraiture while endowing her subjects with tabloid sheen, she honors their pride and swag while also revealing their isolations. Grand estates fall to ruins; bodies are commodified to the point of abuse; even the successful reveal their emptiness. Sure, Greenfield’s implicit aphorisms about fortune and its grievances are familiar, but still, this longitudinal study holds up—there is something deeply transfixing in her lensing of ungodly materialism that coexists with a resonant humanity. When Florian Homm returns at the film’s end, he sits next to a drained pool reconciling his emotional debris born of a broken marriage and his fraught relationship with his son. The same man who opens with his flagrant love of capital now contests: “if you think money will buy you everything and anything, you have never ever had money.”
If there was ever a time for Generation Wealth, it would be now. Money is so big, so powerful, its influence is impossible to overstate. Our real estate Tycoon-in-Chief has a mere single cameo (from his Apprentice days), but his ethos haunts the entire project. Even the production of Generation Wealth itself is entrenched in the very systems it critiques: in an ironic twist emblematic of the terrifying scope of modern monopoly, Amazon Studios is distributing the film, exposing the poisons of accumulating more. Embracing so many truisms and hypocrisies of late capitalism, Generation Wealth aptly epitomizes this dystopian moment in history.
These known realizations are abetted by social theorist Chris Hedges who imbues the film with insight that can feel at times like an academic rewording of the obvious. “Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment they face death,” he shares as he reclines in a leather chair. But if we know that extreme accumulation breeds implosion for individuals, as well as nations, why have we maintained these habits?
Greenfield provides the answer most convincingly in her autobiographical portions of the film, where she investigates her own addiction to her work—a pathology, she finds, which is much like that of her subjects’. Drawn to photographing more and more of the world’s wealth complexes, their obsessions became Greenfield’s obsession, coming at the cost of time spent at home with her husband and sons.
Greenfield retraces her behavior back to its roots through family interviews and home video footage. She unknots memories of her LA upbringing, where status and celebrity permeated her elite private school and where she recalls her feelings of shame, coming from a relatively modest home. Interviewing her mother Patricia Marks Greenfield, now a distinguished psychologist, the filmmaker voices her feelings of childhood abandonment and resentment. The older Greenfield obtained a PhD in human development at the height of second-wave feminism and moved away from her family to pursue her career after a divorce. A generation later, the younger Greenfield shows a photograph from the early aughts of her own freezer stocked with bottled breast milk from days after the birth of her first son (an opportunity to shoot China’s nouveau riche for Time Magazine arose, and she went as soon as she could). Seventeen years have passed. Now, she sits down with that son and her camera.
It’s these moments that save Generation Wealth from the didactic trappings of info-pop documentaries. Buried in her glossy research is a much quieter memoir of imperfection, legacy, and motherhood, akin to the interpersonal inquiries revealed by other brave documentarians like Chantal Akerman and Kirsten Johnson, whose compelling film Cameraperson is a similar emotional rumination on her work as an itinerant cinematographer. In context, Greenfield’s interviews with sex workers, stage moms, surrogates, and businesswomen about parenthood in the age of excess seek answers to questions inherent to her own practice and relationships. Neoliberalism has a unique demand on working mothers. And our art, it seems, can sometimes understand us even before we understand ourselves.
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