Lauren Greenfield Looking Back, Looking Forward
Written by: Michael Mejia
Though they are not predominant in this new documentary by photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, whose Queen of Versailles earned her a Best Director award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, one has a sense of the mirror as a consistent metaphor throughout Generation Wealth. The film is part of a three-pronged retrospective, including a museum exhibition and a 500-page monograph, with Greenfield revisiting several of her best-known subjects, in some cases twenty and thirty years on, interviewing them about who those kids were then and who they’ve become, which in many cases is a much tamer, family-oriented adult. But Generation Wealth is not simply a nostalgia trip, it’s an investigation into the decades-long shift from the kind of wealth-obsessed ambition displayed by the L.A. kids Greenfield photographed in the ‘90s toward the debacle of grotesque excess and sexualized indulgence that has characterized American and global televisual culture and economic practice in more recent years. It’s also a very personal examination of Greenfield’s relationship to her subjects, considering how she came to be so interested in documenting the lives and homes and behaviors of the extremely rich.
Wounded by the failure of her first professional project, working as a photojournalist for National Geographic in a Mayan town in Chiapas, Mexico, alongside her mother, a Harvard-educated psychologist (National Geographic killed the story), Greenfield found her way by turning her lens on the milieu in which she’d grown up, her private arts high school in Santa Monica, leading to her first major work, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. In interviews with her parents, who divorced when Greenfield was young, we learn how she struggled, to some extent, with the same pressures to keep up and fit in with her wealthier classmates as Fast Forward’s subjects did, and also how her professional dedication to her work seems to replicate her mother’s, instilling a distance between the two that Greenfield sees developing in her relationships with her own sons, who think she’s a workaholic.
And it’s this devotion, not to work, but to more, to the limit, to excess and exhaustion that becomes Greenfield’s mirror in Generation Wealth. Contextualized by the wickedly entertaining, disgraced investment banker Florian Homm, and shaded with almost humorously apocalyptic pronouncements of journalist Chris Hedges (his tone would make you laugh if the world wasn’t really on fire), Generation Wealth’s narrative of fiscal irresponsibility, the moral costs among the one percent, and ultimately on the culture at-large, is embodied in subjects ranging from a female hedge-fund manager whose drive for physical and financial perfection jeopardizes her capacity to develop the family she wants, to a female bus driver who believes getting extensive plastic surgery in Brazil is the best way to set a positive example for her daughter.
Reflecting on their experiences with Greenfield, many of the interviewees express regret about their excesses and have moderated, or are at least considering moderating, their behavior. Several have turned toward more humble-seeming lives, fostering more modest expectations, and again we think of the mirror as they wander Greenfield’s exhibition, finding a previous version of themselves, twenty years younger, driven by different desires.
And while Greenfield, too, seems to have some regrets about the effects on her family of her dedication to her work, we are nevertheless certain that this look in the mirror is not so terrifying it will make her turn back. The promise of framing where we go from here is just too alluring.
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