MONEY CAN'T BUY HAPPINESS
American Wealth Gone Wild: A Blistering Takedown of Greedy Kardashian Culture
Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary ‘Generation Wealth,’ playing at SXSW, examines our societal obsession with greed, fame and beauty.
In many ways, Wealth is a natural extension of Versailles, a cautionary tale about one family’s efforts to build the largest home in America. This newest documentary widens the scope, taking on a world made sick with overconsumption—but that’s an oversimplification given how much Greenfield takes on in this 106-minute manifesto and career retrospective. The film is, at once, a look back on 25 years’ worth of Greenfield’s work, a deep dive into the lives of her subjects, captured over decades, and a meditation on consumerism, Kardashian culture, and the rise and fall of the American empire.
As a point of access to all of this decadence and decay, Greenfield returns to her early work and her early life: photographs of L.A.’s wealthy and tanned teenagers, inspired by her own private school days. From prepubescent boys surrounded by hired dancers at bar mitzvahs to a high school-aged Kim Kardashian mingling at a dance, these photos capture both a moment in time and a gathering momentum—a trend towards growing up too fast and too rich to function. These escalating displays of wealth and excess are tempered by the teens’ visible expressions of insecurity and self-consciousness. At once, Greenfield managed to showcase these normal, angsty teens and their singular environment. Girls preened in bikinis for boys and kids flashed hundred-dollar bills at the camera.
Unsurprisingly, years later, Greenfield finds her grown-up subjects almost unanimously traumatized by their lavish childhoods. Generation Wealth doesn’t go about trying to garner sympathy for the children of the rich and famous; instead, it opens up into a larger conversation about, as Greenfield intones, “our collective greed, and its price.”
Greenfield goes on to weave together the various strands of her career, drawing connections between L.A.’s youngest power players and the subjects of her series on eating disorder patients—between celebrities, strippers, and the plastic surgery-obsessed. Some of these linkages—like Greenfield’s recollection of an anorexic woman’s desire to damage the “property” that was her body—stick. Others are less convincing. Still, looking at images of men throwing cash on naked women or socialites posing with their countless luxury bags, it’s hard to deny that Greenfield is on to something.
With the help of experts and Greenfield’s former subjects—the faces and victims of 25 years of American excess—Generation Wealth argues that our shared aspirations are in direct conflict with the stagnation of social mobility. As the American dream has gotten further and further out of reach, the material possessions and markers that constitute that dream have gotten increasingly outlandish. These are vast expanses to cover, and the movie, like so many of its subjects, takes on much more than it needs, jumping between economic explainers, eating-disorder theory, global warming, the rise of Trumpism, cosmetic surgery tourism, meditations on pornography, and personal reflections. This gluttony has resulted in an admittedly overlong film that’s as overwhelming, fascinating, and rich as the photographs themselves. While the execution may leave something—such as a harsher edit—to be desired, these are all fascinating subjects, and Greenfield is an insightful and appealing guide across the flashy surface and through the dark underbelly of consumerist culture.
The film’s theses, like the sad fact that young girls are oversexualized or the even sadder one that wealth and its relentless pursuit are unlikely to result in true happiness, might seem obvious. But interviews with the people whose lives have been malformed by these truisms are far more compelling than any cliché.
These worthy subjects include a Toddlers & Tiaras cast member, a former porn star who got plastic surgery in an attempt to escape her own fetishized image, and an ex-hedge fund manager who can’t return to the U.S. for fear of prosecution. His disgust at his former self—“I was a hamster in a diamond-studded gold wheel”—is parroted by many of Greenfield’s subjects, who overspend or overindulge only to find themselves longing for the life that they had before the surgery or the loan or the seven-day work week; the life that never seemed good enough.
While Greenfield’s most compelling photographs capture true excess, Generation Wealth takes on the inevitable aftermath of pursuing wealth for wealth’s sake. It’s a film about addiction, not only to money but to all of the other false currencies—beauty, fame, followers—that inevitably fail to buy happiness. Greenfield is clearly arguing that our collective greed has gradually gotten worse—that our highs are higher, our desires more superficial and our consumerism more ravaging than ever before. It’s one thing to intellectually reckon with the societal consequences of consumerism and objectification gone wild, but quite another to watch a four-year-old in flippers and a full-face contour gleefully squeal out what beauty means to her: “That I get money, and I’m gonna be a superstar.”
In the midst of putting together her photographs for a career retrospective, examining her own ambitions and failings as a mother, interviewing a decades’ worth of subjects and making some pretty sweeping statements, Greenfield also finds time to pull the Kardashians into the conversation at regular intervals. The reality TV stars are symbols of the gold standard that we all try and fail to measure up to—wealthy, beautiful, and endlessly gifted in the art of flaunting their status and superiority on social media.
While it seems like a stretch—or maybe just a tad harsh—to use the famous family to illustrate these larger societal ills and addictions, it’s hard to disagree with the basic premise that, while past generations only had to worry about the Joneses, we’re now compelled to keep up with the Kardashians, endlessly hooked to the reality show and social media feeds of a family that has accumulated wealth by trading in images of the unattainable. Greenfield effectively argues that aspiring to Kardashian-levels of fame and attractiveness inspires bad values and disappointment, not hard work and achievement. This is all made a bit softer both by the force of Greenfield’s empathy for her subjects and the experts she’s brought in, who shift the blame from grasping individuals to cultural trends and societal forces beyond our control.
Greenfield’s expansive film culminates in the exhibition of her work. As her subjects, many of whom have moved on from their addictions and denounced their former appetites, mingle and take in the photographs, we’re left with an underwhelming conclusion in the form of Greenfield’s personal and professional triumph. It feels like a tidy bow that is struggling to contain all of the big ideas that Greenfield just spent almost two hours putting forward. Then again, perhaps the inclusion of the prestigious exhibition, a true accomplishment for a self-proclaimed workaholic like Greenfield, is a sly commentary on achievement. Even after spending a lifetime studying the negative effects of greed and ambition, Greenfield still wants more.