Perhaps because she has spent her career watching the rich, the photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield is herself rich to watch. At a party after the New York premiere of her new documentary — “Generation Wealth,” about the perils of capitalism — Ms. Greenfield was wired, welcoming and constantly working. She snapped pictures of the well-heeled crowd as she hugged her way around the room, occasionally misplacing a glass of white wine, in a churn of compliments and gossip.
Ms. Greenfield, 52, paused to note that one prominent guest had left the festivities early: Jacqueline Siegel, the star of her best-known documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” about the construction of a $100 million house amid last decade’s financial crisis. Ms. Greenfield observed that in the intervening years, Ms. Siegel’s bosom seemed to have grown inexplicably, much like the national economy. “It’s a metaphor,” Ms. Greenfield said, “for the excess of the new American dream.” (Through a spokesman, Ms. Siegel, a self-professed patron of cosmetic procedures, denied that she has recently augmented her breasts.)
Over the last 30 years, Ms. Greenfield has become America’s foremost visual chronicler of the plutocracy, and those who hope to join its ranks. Her ultra-saturated, up-close, unsparing images have appeared in the pages of The New York Times Magazine, GQ and The New Yorker, as well as museum exhibitions and theatrical documentaries. Ms. Greenfield’s lens has fallen on affluent teens playing hooky, rappers and the strippers they shower $100 bills on, investors in exile, hedge-funders in denial, Iceland’s teetering banking system, abandoned mansions in Dubai and countless other icons of the world’s mounting financial inequality.
In an interview in July, Ms. Greenfield noted that critics have occasionally dismissed her work as marginal. And yet her fascination with materialism has often placed her ahead of the cultural curve. In 1992, she photographed bored teenagers at a fancy Los Angeles school dance; two of them were the then-unknown Kim and Kourtney Kardashian. In 2007, Ms. Greenfield began work that eventually led to “The Queen of Versailles,” putting her in an ideal position to document the global housing crash.
Even the election of a reality-show celebrity as commander-in-chief is a “weird validation of what I’ve been looking at and why it’s important,” Ms. Greenfield said. “When Kim Kardashian was photographed with Donald Trump in the White House,” she added, referring to an Oval Office meeting that took place in May, “it looked like it could have been an ad for my movie.”
Arriving in theaters nationwide on Aug. 3, “Generation Wealth” is a 105-minute collage of a documentary that weaves together still images, news clips, original interviews and footage of Ms. Greenfield’s own family. It argues that the unceasing pursuit of fame and fortune has “become the new American dream” (it’s a favorite phrase), replacing the Horatio Alger allegory of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.
Ms. Greenfield is well aware that she didn’t invent this notion. In a gold-hued, 503-page monograph also titled “Generation Wealth” that Phaidon published in 2017, Ms. Greenfield quotes the writer Fran Lebowitz: “Oh please, Americans do not hate the rich; they want to be them. Every American believes that they are the impending rich, and that will never change.”
Ms. Greenfield began work on the documentary in 2014 after performing “an archaeological dig into my own work” — re-examining more than 500,000 images and 650 hours of audio/video footage archived at her Venice, Calif., home. She and her husband-slash-co-producer, Frank Evers, pitched the project to Amazon Studios. “Lauren had all of this material, so they saw a through line from the Reagan ’80s to Trump, with her as our narrator and guide,” Mr. Evers said.
Amazon turned out to be a cosmically appropriate partner. On the same day that “Generation Wealth” had its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in July, the company’s chief executive officer, Jeff Bezos, became “the richest man in modern history,” according to Bloomberg, with an estimated net worth of $150 billion.
Ms. Greenfield herself isn’t particularly rich, and she seems determined not to absorb the aspirational codes she has spent her life decrypting. Over lunch in July at Freds, the restaurant on the top floor of Barneys New York (not her idea, she’d like to note), she ordered a salad with canned tuna in lieu of fresh. She dressed straightforwardly in a black T-shirt, her Gucci eyeglasses the only suggestion of status. When her salad arrived, Ms. Greenfield apologized and used her fingers to flick a garnish of raw onions directly onto the table.
She had brought her Canon camera, which she plunked down next to her plate; a luxury department store is basically her Serengeti. But she decided not to photograph anyone that day. She hadn’t gotten permission, so the security guards would have likely intervened. Despite being a sly documentarian of strangers at times, Ms. Greenfield doesn’t easily fade into the background. With her minimalist black wardrobe, giant smile and short stature, she’s like a version of her profession out of “The Incredibles”: a slightly glamorous, vaguely academic photographer-mom.
Ms. Greenfield grew up in communes on the West Side of Los Angeles. Her mother, a psychologist, leaned into the counterculture of the 1970s, joining an “eating collective” and refusing to buy Ms. Greenfield brand-name clothes. She appears in “Generation Wealth,” telling her daughter, “The things you didn’t have were the things that I didn’t believe in.”
What the family valued was education, and when Ms. Greenfield was in the 11th grade, she enrolled at the private Crossroads School in nearby Santa Monica, where she befriended some of the city’s wealthiest teens. That ignited her obsession with “materialism and class,” she said, “because my parents had rejected it so much.”
In 1983, Ms. Greenfield matriculated at Harvard, where her parents had studied, and where she encountered both Mr. Evers and a student body of immense privilege. While traveling around the world her junior year, studying film and anthropology, Ms. Greenfield met the pioneering French photographer Jean Rouch, who is credited with helping invent the style known as cinéma vérité, and after returning to Cambridge she changed her major to visual studies.
Ms. Greenfield then trained under Barbara Norfleet, who in the mid-1980s released “All the Right People,” a book of reportage photography focusing on East Coast elites. At the time, such creatures would mostly appear in staged portraits or respectfully edited party pictures, but Ms. Norfleet wanted to capture them and their rituals in the wild. “I realized the rich were, in many ways, this undercover group,” Ms. Greenfield said. “That’s hugely important, because they have so much influence.”
Encouraged by Mr. Evers, who had been hired at Columbia Pictures, Ms. Greenfield applied to film schools a few years after graduation, but she wasn’t admitted anywhere. She concentrated on still photography, earning assignments with National Geographic. Her first project, about a Mayan tribe in Mexico that her mother was studying, was spiked. But after rereading “Less Than Zero,” Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 novel of California excess, she pursued an idea about her own native culture: a portfolio chronicling Crossroads and other deluxe schools, where students attended five-figure bar mitzvahs, drove Range Rovers and cavorted with celebrity progeny like Kate Hudson.
Ms. Greenfield turned the resulting images into her first monograph, “Fast Forward,” which earned her gallery representation and the attention of magazine photo editors. She traveled to the wealthy suburb of Edina, Minn., to record popular cliques enamored with Abercrombie & Fitch; and to Milan, where white teenage boys had co-opted the bandannas, baggy jeans and aesthetics of American gang culture. One fellow photographer told Ms. Greenfield that she ran the risk of pigeonholing herself, but she ultimately decided to “keep peeling back that onion,” she said.
Her pictures, relying on candy colors, awkward compositions and voyeuristic access, synced with the work of other rising photographers in the 1990s, including David LaChapelle and, a bit later on, Ryan McGinley. They also drew the attention of Sheila Nevins, the former HBO documentary president. In 2002, she hired Ms. Greenfield to make her first feature-length film, “Thin,” an unrelenting account of four patients at an eating-disorder treatment center in Coconut Creek, Fla.
To call any of Ms. Greenfield’s portrayals flattering would be inaccurate. (Ms. Siegel’s husband sued the director for defamation after the “The Queen of Versailles” was released, but the director won $750,000 in legal fees after an arbitrator ruled that everything in the film was true.) And she seems to have a knack for convincing people to be radically, unappealingly honest. Her subjects must find that cathartic. Many have agreed to sit with her repeatedly over the years, including for “Generation Wealth,” and Ms. Greenfield has stayed close with several of them, even those she’s captured in harsh light.
One of them, a Las Vegas party host named Tiffany Masters, flew to New York to attend the “Generation Wealth” premiere. Sipping an espresso martini at the after-party, she described how Ms. Greenfield has caught her in various unfavorable ways: in the act of pulling her skirt down, for example, or recording a fatty “flap over the bra.” Nonetheless, Ms. Masters said, she doesn’t fault the artist. “Lauren has the ability to shoot the truth,” she said.
But does Ms. Masters like those photos of herself?
Long pause. “No.”
Another long pause. “They’re unfiltered,” Ms. Masters said. “They’re raw. They’re uncensored. But they’re human.”
Ms. Greenfield joined the ranks of prominent documentarians in 2012, after “The Queen of Versailles” grossed $2.4 million in ticket sales. The movie centered on Ms. Siegel and her husband, David, a time-share tycoon, as they attempted to build one of the largest houses in America. During filming, the couple halted construction when Mr. Siegel became a victim of the real estate bubble. “He’s been to Donald Trump’s office a couple of times trying to get help,” Mr. Siegel’s son says in the movie. In “Generation Wealth,” Ms. Siegel returns to claim she once dated Mr. Trump.
“I’m not interested in the one percent for their own sake,” Ms. Greenfield said. “I’m interested in how we’re all engaged, like Jackie and David, in wanting a little bit more.” Ms. Greenfield is convinced that few people learned their lesson in the 2008 crisis, and she has spent a decade worrying about a modern-day version of the Fall of Rome. In the film, Chris Hedges, a former New York Times journalist, warns that “societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment they face death.”
Rather than lampoon the rich, “Generation Wealth” attempts to examine how avarice has destroyed lives across economic strata. The film intercuts a history of Ms. Greenfield’s career with the stories of more than a dozen characters, as they reveal in broad strokes the ways in which the desire for more (money, beauty, attention, success) has tainted society. There’s an Icelandic fisherman who becomes a banker and installs a waterfall in his home, only for the country’s economic collapse to send him back to the seas; an adviser who charges outrageous sums to teach aspirational Chinese how to pronounce luxury brand names in English; an adult film actress, once paid $30,000 by Charlie Sheen, who’s had three nose jobs in attempt to escape her past. Much of the footage is wealth porn. Some is actual porn.
Another character, Florian Homm, sobs on camera about the ways greed isn’t good. (A former financier, he was accused of defrauding his investors, causing $200 million in losses, and was wanted by the F.B.I.) “It’s light finance, with heavy repercussions,” Mr. Homm said in an interview. “But Lauren leaves the viewer to make their own assessments.”
The critical response to “Generation Wealth” has been mixed. “Its structure makes for an unfocused thesis,” wrote Jeannette Catsoulis in The Times. Robert Abele, writing in The Los Angeles Times, agreed that the film is “unwieldy” but also “an achievement — a messy, conspicuous and sporadically absorbing one.”
After “The Queen of Versailles” was released, one of Ms. Greenfield’s Harvard film professors, Robb Moss, told her that all of her work “was actually about addiction.” But an inherent challenge in chronicling any form of addiction is the risk of glorifying it. If “Generation Wealth” is Ms. Greenfield’s effort to decry incessant capitalism, it also puts the behavior on a podium.
Her editors encouraged Ms. Greenfield to add her own story to the film. She interviewed her parents and her two teenage sons, Noah and Gabriel, about her own compulsion: working too much. The “generation” in the title is a reference to these scenes, which tie the movie together and provide emotional heft. Ms. Greenfield, who often interviews her subjects for hours at a time, doesn’t shy from emotional inquiries into her own inadequacies as a mother. In one clip, a 16-year-old Noah tells Ms. Greenfield that because she was so often away on assignments, Mr. Evers did the bulk of raising him, and that “the damage has already been done.”
Both Mr. Evers and Ms. Greenfield were initially reluctant to include her story in the film. “But Lauren realized that she herself was very much a part of this wealth culture,” Mr. Evers said. “She wanted audiences to realize they were complicit, too.” Ms. Greenfield became more comfortable with appearing in her own work after trying it in a 2014 ad she created for the feminine-care brand Always. The spot featured the director interviewing children about gender stereotypes, showing how the phrase “like a girl” — as in “run like a girl” or “fight like a girl” — transforms into an insult as kids age. The campaign has become Ms. Greenfield’s most-watched product, after airing during the 2015 Super Bowl and amassing more than 200 million views.
“Generation Wealth,” which Ms. Greenfield has also turned into a traveling museum exhibition, doubles as a retrospective and a farewell to her focus on still photography. “Print is dying,” she said, and magazines are commissioning fewer shoots, unable to finance the weeks of travel that her style of reportage requires. In the future, she said, she will concentrate on documentaries. Her next project is with Showtime; Ms. Greenfield would reveal only that it is set in Asia.
Her current film ends with a dose of unexpected brightness, returning to characters who have forsaken their love of money for actual, human love. But ultimately, the takeaway from Ms. Greenfield’s decades of work seems to be that it’s up to future generations to decide how to spend their money — and if you ask her son Noah for his take, the kids are not all right.
“That’s what I realized from the film,” he said in an interview. “People are spending like nobody cares, and that’s exactly how it was in 2008.”
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