Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has spent most of her professional career documenting people living affluent or outlandishly wealthy lifestyles, and with her latest feature film, Generation Wealth (opening in Toronto and Vancouver this Friday), she’s finally asking herself why that is.
Raised in a slightly upper middle class family, the Harvard educated Greenfield has always been drawn to images of affluence and excess. After a potential field project with National Geographic didn’t pan out early in her career, Greenfield turned her anthropological eye and mind towards documenting the lavish lives of Los Angeles area teens for her first project, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. That 1997 monograph would spark a lifelong draw towards documenting people who were addicted to success and wealth, most notably with her 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, which documented David and Jackie Siegel’s attempts to build the largest American house just before the subprime mortgage collapse. During a phone call with Greenfield last week, she admits that Generation Wealth (which has also spawned its own book) was the first time she had ever questioned her own fascinations.
For Generation Wealth, Greenfield follows-up with many subject from her past works to ask them directly about the link between their wealth and their happiness. She also sits down with experts who see modern depictions of wealth as dangerous forms of escapism that lead to a mindset where even the most obscene amounts of money and rampant materialism are never enough, including a sit down with Florian Homm, a former Harvard classmate of Greenfield’s and successful hedge fund manager who found his way onto the FBI’s most wanted list. But most poignantly, Greenfield turns the camera on herself and her family to see if there’s a link between her career and her personal life. Some of the experts and subjects in Generation Wealth openly flaunt their good fortune, while others profiled express deep regrets and suggest that the “American Empire” is in its final days. Generation Wealth is both a film about the constantly evolving nature of how images of opulence are consumed, but also what those images say about the person capturing them.
We chatted with Greenfield about the psychology of wealth, how the perception of her work has changed over the past thirty years, how to capture different forms of wealth, and why social media has been helping to make affluence somewhat mundane.
Whenever you get a new assignment or you decide to take on a new project, were you always the type of person who would look back over your past work and try to find connections to whatever came next, or was that something that really only arose from this specific book and film?
Lauren Greenfield: It really arose from this, in the sense that I normally don’t have the time to sort of re-imagine or rethink the past work. On the other hand, I often go back – not to the pictures – but to a subject or to an idea that I had been introduced to. A good example of something like that would be when I was starting work on The Queen of Versailles. I had been photographing a Versace party in Beverly Hills. My assignment was to photograph Donatella Versace, and it was there that I met Jackie Siegel, and I eventually went to visit her and went on to spend three years filming her. That’s a case where I was going back to the people I had met while I was working on something else, and I find myself going back to the people and things that intrigued me the most, but before this I wasn’t really going back to the physical pictures until this experience.
It has to be interesting revisiting a lot of the work you did in the early 90s. Some people are transfixed by wealth, and so many other people have a tendency to demonize it. When you start showcasing some of this work that you did almost thirty years ago now, have you noticed that the perception of the pictures and the reactions they garner have changed?
Lauren Greenfield: Well, I think our attitudes about wealth have definitely changed. When I started out photographing kids in L.A. and I was looking at how they were affected by Hollywood culture and materialism, they were living this life of excess. When those pictures were published, there was self-consciousness about them. There was a certain degree of embarrassment, like they didn’t want to look like they were being too extravagant. That completely changed with the rise of reality television and our attitudes about wealth changing; to the point that by 2007 when I made a short film called Kids + Money, where I went back to L.A. to video the same exact kinds of kids, the parents were proudly stating that their kids were exactly like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. The whole stigma around wealth had completely changed.
I think, in a way, you could say the same thing about the pornification of culture, especially when it comes to women having their bodies used as leverage points. When I took the picture you see in the film of Kim Kardashian at twelve years old back in the 90s, I don’t think we ever could have imagined that a sex tape could be a vehicle for mainstream fame and fortune. That was part of what I wanted to show in this work; to show how a lot of our values have changed.
I know you come from an anthropological background, but at what point in your career did you realize that if you were going to be covering wealth as a sort of overarching topic that you also had to focus on the psychological aspects of wealth and not just the cultural or visual aspects of it?
Lauren Greenfield: That’s an interesting question, and I really don’t think I got to the heart of the psychological aspect of it until I started this project. I definitely think I started heading in that direction with Queen of Versailles, though. That was when I started to see that wealth could be an addiction. It didn’t seem rational to want to go from a 26,000 square foot mansion and then want something bigger. If that’s not enough, then we know for sure that nothing will ever be enough for some people. (laughs)
In a way, that was an inkling that I had, but at the time, I thought it was just a part of the housing boom that was happening at the time. When the crash happened, the Siegels learned their lessons. To see them and some of the other people I’ve profiled going back to the same cycle of acquisition and addiction to consumerism after the crash, that’s when I really started thinking about the psychology of it and thinking of these things in terms of addiction and relapse.
And from there I was able to see how it related to so many other forms of desire. It started with money or pretending that you had money; the sort of “fake it till you make it” mentality if you didn’t have anything. I started realizing all the other things that wealth afforded people in our culture: the currency of beauty, the currency of youth, the currency of sexuality, the currency of fame. Through those leverage points, the work I did became very psychological.
The film points out that there are different levels to how wealth can manifest itself. It can be psychological and materialistic, but one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was how it can manifest itself physically. Earlier in your career, you documented young women with eating disorders, which you revisit in this film, and here you’re able to be in the room with someone undergoing plastic surgery, and in both cases these physical transformations were in the hopes that something greater would come from them. Does it require a different set of ethics or empathy to cover this aspect of wealth? I can imagine that talking to some of these people would be different from talking to someone like Jackie Siegel.
Lauren Greenfield: Yes and no. Of course, when you’re in a clinic documenting women with eating disorders, it’s a very delicate amount of access that you have to them personally and professionally, and the ethical issues are always on the forefront, so you think about them every day. But as I started to see parallels with other kinds of addictions, psychological conditions, traumas, and emptiness that were behind those things, previously covering eating disorders gave me insight into what drives similar kinds of pathologies.
I always try to bring the same kind of empathy and hopefully humanity to the one-percenters that I’ve filmed for this and in other situations. All of the subjects have some sort of damage that somehow drives addictive desires. I tried to bring the insight from people who’s insecurities and pathologies were more clear and physically obvious to think about other driving factors that make people want to seem more appealing and affluent.
One of the biggest light bulb moments for me was when I was talking to a Wall Street banker, and he said that everybody in finance has a number that they’re going to hit, and they say that when they get to five, ten, or twenty million dollars that they’re going to retire, get out of the business, and enjoy their lives. He said when bankers get to that number, they suddenly feel like it isn’t enough and they move that number. That struck home for me because I remember women with eating disorders saying the same thing; that they got to a target number and suddenly that number wasn’t enough.
That was one of the most profound parts of making something like this; thinking about why we go after these things and suddenly realizing that it wasn’t about the things themselves that we wanted. I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with money in and of itself, but I think we need to examine what the driver is.
In some cases, appearing like you’re wealthier than you are is caused by a desire to escape from the mundanity of everyday life. And your career as it pertains to this is fascinating, because you started in the early 90s when there were relatively few photographers who were documenting wealthier aspects of culture, and now with Instagram and social media, we’re bombarded with these particular kinds of images all the time. Do you think that social media is in danger of making wealth itself mundane through the sheer volume of images available?
Lauren Greenfield: I think the research that’s been done on the subject absolutely proves that. One of the things that’s happened over the past twenty-five years is that images of wealth and affluence have exploded in popular culture. We never used to be bombarded with these images, and then you have shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous coming along, followed by reality television, and then taken to social media. The danger of this bombardment is that people think such things are more normal than they actually are. It’s not just that these images become mundane, but that people ultimately end up wanting the same things. We’ve had this shift where people used to want what their neighbours had, and now they’re comparing themselves to the fictional characters they know from television or people that they’ve never met in their lives. That leads to this kind of endless cycle of desire and dissatisfaction because it’s all so unrealistic for many people to attain. I think that exposure is a big part of the problem, and what I wanted to try and show in the film is that we can’t really stop the exposure. We have to kind of have to wake up to it and learn how to navigate it.
Generation Wealth opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto and Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Friday, July 27, 2018. It expands to additional Canadian cities in the following weeks.
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