“Money ruins kids,” said Adam, a 13-year-old I photographed at a Bar Mitzvah party held at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub with his face inches from a hired go-go dancer’s breasts. But, he told me, you have to spend $90,000 on such a celebration, or you are “shit out of luck.” Stephen Josephson, a therapist who specializes in “First World problems,” told me that when he asks kids what they want to be when they grow up, the most common response is “rich and famous.” He added that those kids are at risk of depression. “Everyone wants to be rich,” said the American billionaire David Siegel, who sells “luxury” timeshare units on credit to middle- and working-class customers. “If they can’t be rich, they want to feel rich—and, if they don’t want to feel rich, then they’re probably dead.” Talking to me for my last film, The Queen of Versailles, Siegel voiced a global aspiration in one perfect sound bite. He followed it up with the surprising insight that “money doesn’t make you happy. It just makes you unhappy in a good section of town.”
If everybody knows that money doesn’t bring us happiness, why do we devote our lives to trying to get more of it? This conundrum is the principal question I try to answer in my film Generation Wealth. The pursuit of wealth has long been a key element of the American Dream. And there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire for a better material life. So why “more money, more problems?” Josephson, who appears in the film, explained it to me this way: “Money is not the root of all evil. It’s money in the absence of values.”
After devoting 25 years as a photographer and filmmaker to documenting materialism, presentation-based status, and the importance of celebrity in the culture, I have concluded that most of us are addicted to wanting more—more money, more stuff, and more of the attention and status we believe follows from that. At the same time, we have increasingly lost sight of the values that provide a check on our desires and that would allow us better to assess the costs and benefits of our ambitions. As a result, we find ourselves trapped like a “hamster on a diamond-studded gold wheel,” as one of the film’s subjects, accused white-collar criminal Florian Homm, puts it. So how did the American Dream turn into the American nightmare, as I often heard it described by subjects who had seen their own outsize aspirations turn to dust?
Let’s call it the Kardashian effect.
As I have observed over the past 25 years, we have become increasingly inundated with media images of outlandish luxury and upscale lifestyles. We went from the modest middle-class characters of the TV shows of my childhood—Happy Days, Good Times—to 1980s soap operas about the rich such as Dallas and Dynasty to “reality” television that brought us up close and personal with actual displays of obscene wealth on shows like My Super Sweet Sixteen. The ironically-titled The Simple Life, starring the heiress Paris Hilton, and the subsequent rise of Paris’s sidekick, Kim Kardashian, at the helm of the juggernaut that is Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which launched in 2007, accelerated this trend. The show has elevated “being famous for being famous” to an art form by displaying to its aspirational fans the details not so much of the Kardashian family’s story but of their acquisitive lifestyle, one trip to Vegas, to a restaurant, to a shop, to a salon, at a time.
Research shows that the more images of wealth we see in media, the more we imagine others are wealthier than they actually are. And the economist Juliet Schor tells us that unlike the old days, when we compared ourselves to the family next door, who were a little more successful than us, we now compare ourselves to the celebrities with whom we spend more time than our actual neighbors. Keeping up with the Joneses has become Keeping up with the Kardashians, and the American Dream has morphed from an attainable goal, the result of hard work, to a fantasy way of life characterized by self-indulgence, celebrity, and narcissism.
The riptide of contemporary capitalism did not sweep us along with it back in the day, when we were less exposed to media and had stronger traditional institutions to guide us—religion, school, family. Nowadays young people look up to Kim Kardashian’s little sister, Kylie Jenner. Forbes magazine recently reported that 20-year-old Jenner, who grew up on the family show, was on track to become the youngest ever “self-made billionaire.” Her fortune is based largely on “lip kits” purchased in the feedback loop between artfully lit Snapchat shots of Jenner’s famous, injection-enhanced pout and the website of Kylie Cosmetics. Jenner’s success shows just how powerful the culture can be when aided by the internet and social media. We now live in a state of collective FOMO, where we are constantly comparing ourselves, not only to the actual 1%, but to an airbrushed version of their lifestyle.
The backdrop to this transformation of the American Dream is that economic inequality has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age of late 19th century robber barons. A May 2018 UN report on extreme poverty noted that, “The US has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries” and that it has “one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries.” It continues: “Zip codes…are tragically reliable predictors of a child’s future employment and income prospects.” Now, I fear it’s safe to say that the American Dream is fast becoming the American Illusion. This helps explain popular culture’s embrace of bling and image over substance. As Lil Magic, manager of Magic City, a legendary Atlanta strip club that has launched the careers of hip-hop stars including Future and Jeezy, told me, you have to “fake it till you make it.” Whether it is real or not matters less nowadays, because, as he observes, people can’t tell the difference between entertainment and reality anymore. In this world, as author Chris Hedges observes in Generation Wealth, “When there is no social mobility, the only social mobility you have is fictitious. The presentation that you give to the rest of the world denies your own reality.”
We’re in a vicious cycle. We never feel like we have enough or are enough. Insecurities make for avid consumers, because we want to buy what can fix us and make us more like the people we want to emulate. What we used to understand to be luxuries now seem to be necessities. The giant flat-screen TVs that graced the walls in shelter-magazine photo spreads can now can be found across the socioeconomic spectrum, and, as New York Times reporter Alex Kuczynski writes in her book Beauty Junkies, 75% of people who get plastic surgery make less than $50,000 a year. Cathy, a single mom and bus driver who appears in Generation Wealth, shows us that the “makeover” has become a physical version of the American Dream’s “rags to riches” story. I discovered that the American Illusion is not just about money, but also beauty, youth, and fame. As Kim Kardashian demonstrated when she took a page from her friend Paris and launched her career with a sex tape, women’s bodies are valuable commodities that can be leveraged for fame and fortune. The “body projects” many women are driven to embark on are tragic case studies in the commodification of human beings and the ultimate cost of our transactional culture.
Originally planned as a book, Generation Wealth had me editing more than half a million pictures taken over the course of my career, as well as taking more than 50,000 new images and conducting over 500 interviews. Halfway through putting the book together, I decided to turn Generation Wealth into a documentary film. At some point I spotted a link between my fascination with our addictive culture and my own work ethic. The more evidence I had, the more I wanted, and the more I thought I needed, often at the expense of my precious family life. My behavior was a by-product of the very societal ills that affected the people I was documenting. Their drives and ambitions were more destructive than mine, but there was a parallel. Work—and the gratification and recognition that comes with it—can be an addiction like any other. To greater or lesser degrees, everybody is following what Florian Homm calls a “toxic dream.” The constant quest for more makes us sacrifice the things that actually matter: family, community, well-being. If we stay on this path, our future is unsustainable: our environment, our relationships, our souls will suffer. But if—like many of my subjects, whose lives crashed when the economy did in 2008—we find the possibility for change, then perhaps we can redeem ourselves. Ironically, it is sometimes during the crashes, financial, personal, and maybe even political, that we have the opportunity to see the “matrix” we are in and opt out of the illusion.
As a woman who has been an avid shopper and vexed by body-image insecurities, a member of the image-making media, and a newly-admitted workaholic, I have come to realize my own complicity in the values of Generation Wealth. We’re often so entangled in the forces that shape us and that we in turn help to shape that it’s all we can do to monitor where we stand. My own position as both critic and participant was brought home to me recently when Kendall Jenner Instagrammed a photo of her home. I had to laugh when I saw there on her wall one of my photographs, a 1995 shot of Mijanou, who won “Best Physique” that year as a senior at Beverly Hills High School.