Over the past couple of decades, photo-essayist Lauren Greenfield (kids + money, The Queen of Versailles) has sought out lives filled with glamor and extravagance, striving to capture how our perception of social standing through gluttonous excess is rapidly evolving, as the values of yesteryear shift and take a backseat to the quest for personal gain. Whether we are aware of its grasp or not, we all fall victim to a culture of rampant self-obsession; it isn’t all designer names and flashy sports cars. In her latest exploration of exorbitant luxury, she revisits familiar subject matter in an attempt to draw a definitive conclusion. In Generation Wealth she has reached a culmination of her life’s achievement, tracing the through-line across her body of work in an attempt to get to the root of a thesis she’s spent her entire career defending.
Despite its glitzy exterior, Greenfield’s tale is an undeniably tragic one. Her subjects are insanely wealthy, but it’s never enough to satiate the unreasonable benchmarks they set for themselves. They’re all driven by their insatiable thirst. Satisfaction is tied directly to balance, and these characters have skewed the scales to the point where they continue to sprint in the opposite direction of equilibrium, doomed to never know true happiness. Driven by their own insecurities which manifest themselves in the pursuit of beauty and fame, this, as Greenfield argues, is the core component of capitalism. As long as people are unsatisfied with normalcy, they will constantly be chasing unattainable goals. The American Dream used to revolve around comparing ourselves to our neighbors, but now it’s blossomed into comparing ourselves to celebrities and their fictionalized Shangri-la.
Over the course of the documentary, Generation Wealth morphs into a strikingly personal tale, with Greenfield herself forced to examine how she has been complicit within this culture of wanton greed through her life in the art world, even going so far as to place her own children under the microscope. In addressing her own issues onscreen, she chronicles the evolution of her professional career, moving from photography to filmmaking. Miraculously, she is able to wade waist deep in this story and still maintain the necessary degree of moral objectivity, which is an impressive balancing act that consistently trips up even the most adept documentarians. She never has contempt for her subjects (or herself, for that matter), even when she documents their contemptible behavior.
When the narrative lags – which, to the film’s credit, Greenfield is consistently able to quickly recover from – it’s because it’s central thesis feels so glaringly obvious. Documentaries are meant to present new information, or at the very least, frame existing knowledge in an unfamiliar light, but we are taught practically from infancy that greed is a fatal flaw and that happiness is a yardstick that must be defined by the individual. It’s impossible to cure one of modern societies most glaring failings in an hour and a half. Still, Greenfield is constantly able to make the ordinary feel fascinating, pulling from an array of varied perspectives as she strives to tackle her own inner demons. While it flubs the landing a bit with its oversimplified diagnosis and its shameless plug of Greenfield’s 500-page photo book of the same name, Generation Wealth dives beneath the surface in its – pointed, albeit frequently shallow – examination of the superficiality of overindulgence, becoming a group therapy session we could all benefit from witnessing.