A documentary by Lauren Greenfield. Rating unavailable
For the past two-and-a-half decades, photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has focused her camera on human excess—L.A. teenagers cruising the beach in luxury convertibles; tulle-twirling Russian debutante balls; Chinese mansions with gold toilets; glitzy child beauty pageants; and body-mutilating plastic surgeries. In her 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, she famously turned her lens on a former beauty queen and a time-share baron as they tried to build America’s largest monster house on the eve of the last recession.
What all her subjects have in common, as she explores in this free-associating and surprisingly personal new documentary, is the compulsive and poisonous pursuit of money and status.
In Generation Wealth, she reflects on her career and revisits many of her photographs’ colourful characters. The most memorable include fallen hedge-fund manager Florian Homm, exiled in Germany, desperately sucking the cigars that are the only vestige of the extravagant lifestyle he has left. There’s also a school-bus driver who’s living out of a car due to her plastic-surgery bills, and an aging, workaholic financier who’s pouring thousands into surrogate motherhood.
Inevitably, any look at consumer capitalism will cover commodified sex, represented amply here by deeply troubled porn stars, dead-eyed Las Vegas escorts, and—in what may be the film’s most unsettling image—the naked performers at Atlanta’s Magic City strip club, maniacally scrambling on all fours across the floor to grab the dollar bills being rained on them.
Greenfield interweaves these interviews with reflections on her own comfortable life, career, and family, questioning her private-school upbringing and her frequent travel while her children were young. The approach (a departure for a director who has largely stayed out of films like Versailles and the anorexia doc Thin) grounds the work in real emotion and reinforces the main idea that love and family trump the almighty dollar any day.
But as in so much of this sprawling meditation—an odd mix where the heinously crass often outweighs the authentically beautiful—deep analysis is lacking. An economist does offer views on the rise of global capitalism and the way blind wealth precipitated the decline of all ancient civilizations. Donald Trump also makes several appearances.
You’ll appreciate the artistic risks Greenfield takes, her refusal to oversimplify, and—damn! She sure can shoot a picture. But aside from just being appalled, your take-aways here may stop at “Money can’t buy you love.” That and the realization that, while we’re frantically scrambling for our own dollar bills, Rome is definitely burning.