Lauren Greenfield is on to something. The sociographic photo-essayist best known to moviegoers for her documentary portraits “Thin” and “The Queen of Versailles” has spent a quarter-century chronicling excess in all its forms: luxury living, hyper-consumerism, substance abuse, plastic surgery, child beauty pageants, spoiled celebrity kids, strippers, escorts, and trophy wives. With “Generation Wealth” — first her oeuvre-encompassing exhibition, then the blinged-out coffee-table book, and now this unexpectedly personal documentary of the same name — she makes a compelling argument for a society on the brink of precipitous decline, choosing to interpret the runaway vanity and rampant materialism observed in her own work as harbingers of our imminent destruction, while serving up Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump as case-in-point examples.
It’s a convenient thesis, since it so nicely fits a career spent documenting what one talking head calls “ultra-decadence,” albeit a bogus one, as if Diane Arbus looked back over her life’s work, only to conclude that the world is populated exclusively by disfigured freaks. Just because Greenfield is drawn to people fixated on fame and fortune doesn’t mean that everybody is, and no matter how extreme some of these practices may look today, profligate spending is hardly anything new. Fortunately, Greenfield’s enduring obsession with obsession has uniquely enabled her to explore the great, under-explored paradox of our time: How can such affluence do so little to address our fundamental dissatisfaction as human beings?
“In my work, I often look at the extremes to understand the mainstream,” Greenfield explains at one point. “And also to understand myself,” she might also have added, since so much of the movie is introspective. Typically, it’s a third-party admirer who undertakes an art docs, bringing a certain objective distance to someone else’s visual career, but in this case, Greenfield opts to provide her own career-spanning survey, framing it as a kind of sprawling cultural tragedy, masterfully organized and edited by a team of five.
As it turns out, she has been an obsessive self-chronicler her entire life, having the foresight to make audio recordings of the sexually precocious Hollywood teens she photographed for her first monograph, “Fast Forward,” as they flirted, partied, and otherwise led the adolescence of which she herself felt deprived. For the doc, Greenfield revisits those early subjects 25 years later, the way Michael Apted did via his “7 Up” series, to show “where are they now” — except the results aren’t all that surprising: Some hit rock-bottom long ago and have since mellowed into more reflective lives, others will presumably remain douchebags until they die.
Greenfield’s more recent work is more on point, since there’s a significant difference between the attitudes of those born into wealth and the aspirational sort who spend their lives pursuing it at all costs. It’s chilling to hear six-year-old beauty-pageant princess Eden Wood, of “Toddlers and Tiaras” fame, talk about wanting a room full of money, especially when we see the reality of her lower-class Arkansas upbringing — and no less unnerving to watch former porn star Kacey Jordan, who once received a five-figure tip from Charlie Sheen, film her own a suicide attempt after money failed to buy her happiness.
Another recurring motif throughout Greenfield’s career has been the mismatch between the superficial image of happiness her subjects project and the actual dissatisfaction that festers deeper down. With their hyper-saturated colors and carnival-like wide-angle distortion, her portraits look nothing like conventional photo-documentary work, simultaneously hyping and criticizing the lifestyles they depict. By including behind-the-scenes footage of these shoots, Greenfield strips her most iconic images of their mystique and reveals the true personalities of figures who so often look like gargoyles in her work.
Clearly, money can be a complicated drug, and Greenfield here treats it like an addiction, which feeds nicely into interviews with Cathy Grant (whose plastic surgery habit got in the way of raising her own daughter, who also suffered from body image issues) and “Suzanne” (a hedge-fund investor who once poured her earnings into an insanely expensive beauty regimen, but has since shifted her attention to buying a surrogate child). And if you think these American women are extreme, just wait’ll you see the opulence on offer in Russia and China, whose golden-toilet residences make Mar Lago look rinky-dink by comparison. (Clips of Trump feel like cheap shots, considering the “billionaire” may as well be the poster boy for this entire phenomenon, and is therefore already in the back of our minds.)
In Beverly Hills, a woman candidly talks about the satisfaction she gets from buying a luxury handbag, whose price tag is roughly the equivalent of one year’s Ivy League tuition, then describes the inevitable “what next?” sensation that inevitably follows. Puffing away on expensive cigars in the gilded prison of his own design, German businessman Florian Homm breaks down the economic reasons our current consumer model isn’t sustainable, before breaking down emotionally when he thinks about everything he sacrificed to make his dirty millions.
Though it can sometimes feel invasive when a documentarian includes his or her own voice in the finished cut, Greenfield’s presence is essential here as we observe the rapport she’s established with people whom it’s difficult for us not to judge, and whom she views with all the complexity her portraits suggest. Though footage of strippers and sex workers skew this a bit older than Darryl Roberts’ terrific “America the Beautiful” series, the occasionally X-rated conversation is clearly one Greenfield is having with her own kids, and other parents might consider doing the same.
Greenfield dedicates much of “Generation Wealth” to her own situation, interviewing her parents about what shaped this fixation she seems to have with status, and coming clean on the way that her dedication to her work gets in the way of family time. As in any depiction of wealth, there’s an inevitable sense of “schadenfreude” (that wonderful German word for pleasure in seeing others’ misfortune) that arises, pounded home late in the documentary as Jeff Beal’s score works overtime to convey that greed has ruined the lives of nearly everyone Greenfield ever chronicled.
“Generation Wealth” suddenly turns existential in the final stretch, as Homm and others share aphorisms no one in the audience really needs, reiterating in various ways that money doesn’t matter, and that the most important thing is time spent with loved ones. Greenfield seems compelled to offer some all-encompassing take-away, as if there could be a single lesson that summarizes what she has seen over such a provocative and complex career, apart from the obvious one: You really should buy her book.