If some foreign life force crash-landed into Beverly Hills and began observing the surrounding population, what would they see? This is the sort of perspective Emmy-winning photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield adopted some 25 years ago when she began documenting the culture of excess in Los Angeles—observing human behavior in “almost anthropological terms." She recalls this early part of her career in her new documentary Generation Wealth, a powerful, sprawling indictment of wealth culture and the follow-up to her book and exhibition of the same name.
But back then, she was photographing and interviewing the youth of L.A., immersed in a whirlpool of toxic, materialistic decadence, for her first book, Fast Forward. In the years following, Greenfield has continued focusing on the undersides of American culture: anorexia, the expectations of gender, and the unending gluttony of consumerism perhaps most poignantly manifested in The Queen of Versailles, the documentary that follows billionaires David and Jackie Siegel as they build one of the biggest houses in America amid the 2008 financial crash.
In her new film, Greenfield consolidates the themes of her oeuvre into an ambitious, global web that interrogates our addictions to materialism, image and status, and the desire to aspire “to something you're not." She revisits some of the same individuals she followed in the '90s to see where they've ended up, while also following new subjects—from the manager of an Atlanta strip club to a fraudulent hedge fund manager to an Icelandic fisherman swallowed by his country's boom-and-bust economy—caught up in various obsessions for more. Together, this wide swath of characters, including Greenfield herself, portends irrevocable damage—to social values, to the global economy, to the very soul of our humanity. We spoke to Greenfield about how our obsessions with the superficial have changed over time, how it connects to our current political landscape, and if there's any hope for humanity.
The title is Generation Wealth, but it's not just about money. Your film expands into all these different facets. What is the “wealth" that the title is referring to?
It's almost a misdirect in that you think it's going to be about wealth. What I felt really strongly about was that it's not actually about wealth, but the aspiration to wealth. The 1 percent has this huge influence, and they certainly have a presence in the book and the movie, but a lot of the people in there are not wealthy. I'm more interested in how the 99 percent is affected by that 1 percent. And it's not just the 1 percent living their lives, but how they're amplified in the media, in branding, in all these drivers that make their presence much more important than what 1 percent would suggest. So in a way it started with money or the aspiration to money, the kind of "fake it till you make it." But then I started seeing it was also about how you looked, your youth, your beauty, your sexuality, your brand, your fame.
You first started to look at this culture of wealth in L.A. in the '90s. What's different now in how we view the things you showed then? Because back then there was already a foreboding sense of cultural decline.
I was kind of stunned when I went back to my early work, Fast Forward. We were listening to the early interviews I did with my first book, and John Hockenberry said, “These are the images of a culture in decay." I was blown away that that's what he saw 25 years ago because I didn't see that then, and that's what I do see now. What I felt that I documented [in Generation Wealth] is what I saw in the '90s just going completely on overdrive and kind of blowing up exponentially. The things that people cared about—materialism and celebrity and image, and the way we were being affected at that time by the early 24-hour cable, specifically MTV and hip-hop—all of those kinds of influences have just blown up. And in the time of the Internet and social media, everything has gotten so much faster and more extreme and more decadent. So I had this feeling like we were dancing on the deck of the Titanic, and it did feel kind of end-of-empire-esque.
And toward the end of the bookmaking process, maybe halfway through the film edit, Trump was elected. That kind of felt like the ultimate decadence, the ultimate kind of “fake it till you make it" in this image-based world—having somebody as the president who had no experience in that job and was a figure from television and from real estate.
The film very briefly references Trump in a couple of scenes, but it's never really in direct dialogue with Trumpism. Can you tell me about your decision to not directly implicate this connection?
The most important piece for me is at the end when [strip club manager] Lil Magic says, "We don't know the difference between entertainment and reality." And then we see Trump dancing at the Inauguration Ball, and we see a clip from his campaign speech where David and Jackie Siegel are in the front row supporting him. And he says, "This isn't about me. It's about you!" That was a really important beat for me there. Because the movie is not about Trump, it's about us. His being elected, I think, is a symptom of Generation Wealth, not something that is particular to this one man in history kind of coming up. In a way, he expresses the pathology of where we are as a culture. And I felt like he may come and go. Who knows how long he'll be with us? But we still have to reckon with the culture that made him possible. And that is the bigger, more systemic problem.
You said in the film that you tend to document “the extremes in order to show the mainstream." Does it feel like in this film, years after you first began these examinations, there's less of a distance or connection to make between these two poles?
I definitely do. When I started the project on L.A. kids, people in other parts of country dismissed it as “those crazy people in L.A." I mean, they liked it, but it wasn't them. And by the time I did Queen of Versailles, people could see that there was a little bit of Jackie and David Siegel in all of us, because it wasn't the rich that just experienced the financial crash. It was everybody who borrowed too much of subprime loans and credit card loans—this kind of mainstream trickle-down of luxury and kind of feeling like you're entitled to luxury. In the film, I say 75 percent of women who get plastic surgery make $50,000 or less.
The film certainly bucks the idea that you're documenting a select group, as you profile all types of people across the world. Why has this wealth culture spread beyond the “crazy people in L.A."?
The media has brought us all closer in terms of our values. The global media gives us all this exposure to high luxury and the Kardashians. It's like the Icelandic fisherman in the film referencing the Kardashians as his inspiration for his decor. I think that that has brought us closer in terms of our values and what we want. But it also has increased what the economist Juliet Schor calls the “aspirational gap," where what we want is completely disconnected from what we can afford. And I think that has really tragic consequences economically but also for us morally and spiritually, in terms of never being satisfied. And then the other kind of irony is that at this time when the American Dream has become this kind of American Illusion of wealth, the reality is that there has never been so much wealth concentrated in the hands of the few and so much inequality. And social mobility has gone way down. The idea of the American Dream, and the rags-to-riches story, is just more of a fantasy than ever. That's what really resonated for me when the journalist Chris Hedges said that fictitious social mobility, i.e. bling and brand, is the only kind of social mobility that a lot of people feel is in reach. So on one hand, we're more similar in what we want, and on the other hand, we're much more unequal.
There are still people who might initially say they are not anything like those in the film, people like you. Most would say you certainly aren't like your subjects, and yet you include your own life alongside theirs in the film. Why include yourself?
In a way, my life is quite boring and middle-of-the-road compared to them. And yet, it's like that thing about looking at the extremes to understand the mainstream. I also want people to be able to see themselves. To me, this is not a story about any kind of extreme. It's really a story about how we're all engaged and complicit in the values of Generation Wealth. And if we stay on this path, it's an unsustainable path, which will lead to our destruction. And as I started including myself, I started feeling like in a way the other characters became empathic and identifiable.
Pretty much each person you document ultimately does follow a path toward destruction. They crash and burn, and many come out realizing the futility of their desires. In a sense, the world also crashed and burned with the global financial crisis, which you talk about in the film. But do you feel like we as a whole have come out with any realizations like the people you profiled?
I think that was the question I was left with after the crash: Is the change limited to the moment of suffering or is it sustained?
When I experienced the crisis and when I made the film The Queen of Versailles, everybody seemed to have learned from the mistakes. When you talk to people who have lost their homes... even when I went to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Lloyd Blankfein from Goldman Sachs said, if we had known what was going to happen, we wouldn't have done this. Everybody seemed to have learned from their mistakes. David Siegel said, "I shouldn't have built so many houses." Jackie Siegel said, "It was my family that mattered, I would have been happy in a two-bedroom apartment." So there was a kind of hope in the destruction of the crash where it seemed like things might be different. I felt like Iceland had such a bad crash that they actually did start to make systemic changes and changes in their values, and as a country have taken stock of what happened and did something different. And yet, a lot of the other people and countries that I documented did not. They went back to the same thing. After I finished the movie The Queen of Versailles, David Siegel was able to borrow money and get the house back. He's still building the biggest house in America—I don't even think it's the biggest anymore—but he's still building that house. But it's still not finished six years later. For us, the stock market came back, real estate market is on fire even more than before, and Trump is our president. So in that way, it felt like we did not learn, and we were heading to the same place.
In that sense, how do you look at the future? Is there going to be another price to pay where we hit real rock bottom, or do you see the culture changing in a way?
I feel like the ending is kind of hopeful, and I think I do feel that hope. I felt like there was a kind of awakening in a lot of the characters, and even in my own story with my family, I felt like I had a little bit of an awakening. It was just really about seeing what was around me and, I think for the other characters, going back to what they realized really matters to them. Then trying to live life in that way. In terms of us as a country, I guess what I wanted to put out there was, on one hand, [we're] zooming toward the apocalypse as Chris Hedges suggests, [but] that the next time, the whole world is going to go down with us. And on the other hand, there's the possibility for change and for agency. I felt like part of that was about kind of seeing the matrix that we're in. If we didn't have Harvey Weinstein, we might not have had [the] MeToo [movement]. And maybe Trump is that reflection of ourselves... we need to wake up.
Generation Wealth is in theaters July 21.