why are we more obsessed with wealth and status than ever before?
In new film Generation Wealth, documentary maker Lauren Greenfield shows why, over the past 25 years we’ve become addicted to having more, more and more -- and where we’re headed next.
Photography: Lauren Greenfield
What do a porn star, a hedge fund manager and a documentary photographer have in common? In Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, Generation Wealth, they’re linked by the driving force of capitalism. It’s this economic construct and its effects on society, with our ever more ramped up culture of excess, that the Emmy-award-winning photographer and filmmaker has been focusing her lens onto for the past 25 years.
Generation Wealth is the culmination of a vast and obsessive body of work that digs into popular culture with an anthropological spade. Featuring the very extra personalities of, among others, Florian, a hedge fund manager turned exile and America’s Most Wanted list member; porn star and prostitute Kacey Jordan, known for sleeping with Charlie Sheen during his infamous drug binge days; and Cathy Grant, a single mother who had vast amounts of plastic surgery and ended up paying the ultimate price when her teenage daughter commits suicide; it’s dark, confronting and utterly engrossing viewing.
Back in the late 90s, Lauren published a book of images and interviews titled Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. It was the beginning of her examination of obsession with money, fame and the accumulation of possessions, focusing on the kids of LA. Since then, she’s watched this fixation with wealth and status grow to monstrous levels, showcased in both a book published last year under the same name -- Generation Wealth -- and the film, in which she goes even deeper.
“Capitalism has been accelerated by the ubiquitous nature of media in our lives and also by globalism,” Lauren says. “It's created this culture of aspiration, which I tried to show was not just about money, but about beauty and youth and fame .” To understand how we got to where we are, she went back to the teen subjects from her first book, to interview them again -- as much to unravel the path we’ve taken as to understand her own compulsion to document it.
As shocking as Lauren’s subjects are, she isn’t holding her them up for us to gawk at and shake our heads, smug in the knowledge of our superior moral fortitude. “I want to be clear that I'm really trying not to judge because I do think that these are rational choices that Cathy and Kacey Jordan make in the context of our cultural values,” she says. Lauren’s work mines the apexes of wealth and status, but instead of seeing these as grotesque outliers, interesting only in their shock-horror, she sees all of us reflected in them. By looking at the extremes, she’s providing insight into the mainstream. “It's kind of what's hiding in plain sight, it's how we're affected by the popular culture and by media messages and by the values of corporate capitalism on a daily basis,” she explains. “It's hard to see it when you're in the matrix.”
Lauren’s previous work includes the book Girl Culture (2002) which laid startlingly bare the mindset and rituals of American teenage girls. In it, 15-year-old Shena squeezes her boobs together and says: “I want to be a topless dancer or a showgirl… if I can accomplish being that, then I can accomplish anything.” As we have become ever more obsessed with signals of status, simultanously we’ve experienced the pornificaiton of, well, everything. It’s no coincidence. “I ended up realising that the commodification of human beings and the body is the ultimate tragedy of capitalism, the ultimate expression of it but also the ultimate damage, and that women and women's bodies were an amazing case study for how that happened,” the director says. “I tried to show a continuum between the way little girls learn from an early age that their value comes from their body, and then how that progresses through as they become teenagers. And in popular culture, with people like Kim Kardashian becoming rich, huge mainstream stars by way of a sex tape, and that not having an stigma but really being a badge of honour and perfectly legitimate way to achieve those goals -- [I was looking at] where that takes us.”
The film opens with Lauren posing the question, “What’s your goal, what do you want this pageant stuff to bring you?” She’s asking Eden Wood, then a 4-year-old with a huge blonde bouffant, a pink showgirl costume and what looks like all of Sephora on her face. “Money! Money, money money!” Shouts the baby beauty queen. “What that means for women as they age,” says Lauren, “was the other piece of it for me. If youth, body and sexuality are what gives you value, then there can be a kind of desperate attempt to hold onto those things as you age.”
Underscoring much of Generation Wealth is the way society has refocused onto an idea of pretend prospering -- the show of value through signals of status, possessions, accumulation of stuff. Projecting an image of success has become what’s important. Never more so than in the age of social media. “The sad backdrop to this shift over the past 25 years, particularly in the US, is the least social mobility that we've had. In the 70s we had much more real social mobility. Now we have less and we have more concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and so as real social mobility becomes more and more out of reach, it's this factitious social mobility that is the only kind of upward movement that a lot of people feel is attainable.”
So, where are we headed? Lauren connects this dire situation with what we’ve done to the earth with climate change. As journalist and author Chris Hedges says in the film, “It’s kind of like the end of Rome. The pyramids were built at the moment of precipitous Egyptian decline. And that’s what always happens, society accrues the greatest wealth at the moment that they face death.” The difference being, this time we’re taking the planet down too.
It’s a grim forecast but Lauren sees at least some grounds for optimism. Some of her subjects do eventually have a realisation that the constant striving for more and better, for wanting to be someone else and never being satisfied can’t ever provide them with happiness. “In a way, when I did the book [ Generation Wealth], it has a very dark ending. The movie has some hope at the end, and for me the hope really came from this possibility of waking up, that somehow in deconstructing the kind of matrix that we're living in and seeing things more clearly, that there was a possibility for waking up.” Basically, with Trump and his ilk, we’re heading for cultural rock-bottom -- and to break our addiction to wealth and status, like with all addictions, we have to get to our lowest point before we can change. As disgraced hedge fund banker Florian says in the film, we need to get off this gold plated hamster wheel. So, as we head for cultural and political rock bottom, fingers crossed that the only way is up.