The photographer Lauren Greenfield, whose documentary The Queen Of Versailles profiled a mega-rich Florida family and their unfinished 85,000 square foot house, offers a career survey in Generation Wealth, revisiting her earlier books, photo assignments, and short docs in a purported overview of our global culture of conspicuous consumption and troubled self-image, from toddler beauty pageant winners to “purseaholics” to the Chinese nouveau riche. “In my work, I often look at extremes to understand the mainstream,” she says by way of an anthropological mission statement. But what can we really learn about ourselves from 24-karat toilets, cosmetic surgeries for dogs, and “Mayan uterine massage”? Apart, of course, from the things that so many reality TV franchises have already taught us: That we are fascinated by excess and status mania.
Greenfield’s choice of material represents a kind of excess, too, hopping from luxury-brand-sponsored debutante balls in Moscow to the Atlanta Strip club Magic City (in excerpts from a 2015 short Greenfield directed for GQ) to a $16,000 etiquette class where would-be aristocrats learn how to eat a banana with a knife and fork. We meet the Mephistophelean former hedge-fund manager and international fugitive Florian Homm and (in interviews conducted over several years and name changes) the former porn star Kacey Jordan. Some of these real-life characters are mini-tragedies, drawing sad circles of American life. Others seem to belong in a very subtle Christopher Guest comedy, like the high-strung executive Suzanne, no last name given. “I collect contemporary art,” she tells us as Greenfield’s camera cuts to the various gallery-bought tchotchkes around her neutral-colored Manhattan condo: a dollar bill with “New York is a lot of work” printed on it; a framed Post-It that reads “Cha-ching!”; a plate that just says “Valium.”
To Greenfield’s credit, she addresses her own morbid curiosity about these characters, telling the story of how a copy of Bret Easton Ellis’ Brat Pack bestseller Less Than Zero led her to return to her old high school, the elite Crossroads School in Santa Monica, as a photographer for her first book, 1998’s Fast Forward: Growing Up In The Shadow Of Hollywood. (Ellis is interviewed here; so are a half dozen of the cool kids profiled in Fast Forward, who are now fortysomethings in various stages of recovery.) Half-hearted, essay-film-esque self-exegesis—focused on her insecurities about her family and her relationship with her mother, a fellow workaholic—is the only thing holding Generation Wealth together; unlike The Queen Of Versailles or Greenfield’s earlier HBO documentary Thin, about a Florida treatment center for women with eating disorders, it has no central story.
But photographers are rarely the most perspicacious observers of their own work. The conclusions that Generation Wealth draws are shallow—part mass-culture doomsaying and part paean to simplistic picket-fence values. It’s all Gordon Gekko, Las Vegas, and the Kardashians; one might walk away thinking that someone who has devoted their career to chronicling the extremes of wealth and luxury sees nothing but extremity in everyday life. The result is as unfulfilling as the materialism it rails against. But one thing Greenfield seems to have learned from her more successful subjects is the importance of multi-platform branding: Generation Wealth is a companion piece to the 500-page photo book of the same title, published last year. There, one can at least focus on the pictures.