When Lauren Greenfield started the quarter century of photography and documentary work that would culminate in “Generation Wealth,” she had no idea how much the current administration would be reflected in the entire project.
Though Donald Trump is only briefly shown in the Amazon film that opened Friday through Magnolia, the same elements that underlie his climb to office — fame, materialism, real estate, reality TV, the commodification of women’s bodies — are the central themes of the documentary.
In “Generation Wealth,” Greenfield’s subjects suffer the fallout of their lavish lifestyles and outsized obsessions, in something of a cautionary tale for today’s culture. Those subjects include a former porn star, the now-grown L.A. teens she photographed in the 1990s, a plastic surgery addict, a disgraced hedge fund manager and Jackie and David Siegel, the billionaire real estate moguls she portrayed in her previous feature “The Queen of Versailles.”
It’s the Siegels who are shown attending a rally for Trump in the only scene that directly references him. In his speech, Trump says “It’s not about me, it’s about you,” which Greenfield says is a fitting through-line for “Generation Wealth.”
“I started this work 25 years ago so I could not have predicted the rise of Donald Trump,” Greenfield says, “And yet, I think he’s strongly felt in this film.”
She says Trump is a symptom of Generation Wealth. “He’s an expression of the pathology, but it’s not about him.”
Trump’s rise “felt like it’s out of nowhere, but it’s really not,” Greenfield says, “It makes sense.”
“Generation Wealth” arrives at a potent time for documentary filmmaking, with “RGB” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” making waves at the box office and series like Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” seducing home viewers.
Greenfield thinks one reason audiences are finding documentaries so compelling in this moment is that they’re providing an voice that’s not dictated by a network.
“Just investigation into telling the truth about something is refreshing right now — even our news feels like it’s co-opted by predetermined point of views,” she says, “We all struggle to get information from an independent media, whether it’s co-opting Facebook, or corporate capitalism like ‘The Apprentice,’ or the news — that’s all part of the Trump phenomenon.”
Greenfield’s first widespread recognition came with “Fast Forward,” a photo exhibition and book picturing the moneyed teens of Beverly Hills High and Crossroads alongside less-wealthy kids from other parts of L.A. A 12-year old Kim Kardashian was among the kids she shot at the time.
The new film catches up with several of those teens, some of whom have chosen not to pursue the same kinds of materialism-driven lifestyles as their parents. But the pressures on teens to fit in and look good are as strong as ever, and Greenfield says it’s up to parents to show a different approach. “I’m trying to have the audience think about, are those the values that we want for ourselves and our children.”
She sees her work on body image as an integral part of exploring the effects of capitalism, and her body of work including the book and film “Thin” on anorexia, the “Girl Culture” book and exhibit and the award-winning #LikeaGirl ad campaign, have brought that theme into focus.
“It all came together when I understood that my work on women’s bodies was really about the commodification of the female body, and the way it gets exploited by capitalism. Girls learn at an early age that their body is their currency,” she says.
“It’s about girls’ bodies as a case study on what capitalism does to anybody with an insecurity. It could be children, people of color — anywhere there’s a weakness makes people into very vulnerable consumers.”
Since the film looks back over many of the subjects she has photographed in the past 25 years, Greenfield thought it was only fair to look at her own relationship to the subject. She started by interviewing her parents and her sons as representatives of their generations, to get her kids to talk about social media and the pressure they felt. That segued into looking at her own feelings about money and work.
“I wanted designer clothes and a car, I wanted to be thinner and my parents didn’t agree with that,” she remembers. “It made me wonder why I wanted these things so much.”
She hopes that aside from gawking at the over-the-top kitsch of the characters, the audience will also get to know them and see their journey and then think, “How am I part of generation wealth? How am I complicit?”
Now that the long journey with “Generation Wealth” as a book, an exhibit and a film, is nearly finished Greenfield says she’s working on a new feature documentary that combines themes of wealth and politics. And she’s also starting a new company named after her book “Girl Culture” that will rep female directors for commercials and branded content.
The company will focus on bringing stronger female voices into the commercial world — something Greenfield is clearly well-equipped to do.