A look at the recently released documentary Generation Wealth, a film that examines, in jaw-dropping fashion, materialism, celebrity culture, and social status while reflecting on the modern desire to be wealthy at any cost…
by: Jennifer Parker
“Capital like any other resource in excess will cause utter social and economic havoc.” — Florian Homm
Turns out that before most great societies crumble, they spend a shit ton of money. It also turns out there is no amount of money that can save a decaying democracy. Fortunately there exists documentary filmmakers who have started the job of codifying some of the bigger issues in this regard. The recently released documentary Generation Wealth is visual artist Lauren Greenfield’s compilation of her lifelong preoccupation with wealth. She shows through this eye-opening film what money can do and what it can’t. Not only concluding that everything has a price, including parenting, Generation Wealth hints that the United States is a society on the brink of collapse. What makes the documentary striking is Greenfield’s vulnerability and her self-examination of her own life, her marriage, her relationship with her parents, her children, and why she has 500,000 pictures documenting wealth. It’s hard not to view the film without a big ‘ole pit in your tummy (there’s surgery to fix just about anything so don’t worry if it sticks out), but I was forced to ask myself: Why does the film cause such discomfort? Is it that we as an audience are looking at the über wealthy as if they are a curiosity, like creatures in a zoo? Do we have empathy for any of them? Do they give a shit about us? Does it matter?
Full disclosure: I grew up in the same era as Lauren Greenfield, a bit south from her home in Venice Beach, where she lived somewhat modestly compared to her peers in Brentwood and Beverly Hills. Like Greenfield, our fathers were physicians and the primary parents. Growing up, Greenfield became obsessed with the haves and the have mores. She started documenting their lives in high school with her camera, while I was taking pictures of buildings. We both knew families with so much money they gave their kids Ferraris and Mercedes for their sixteenth birthdays. The Kardashians went to her school. I went to school with their cousins. I think the differences are most profound in our career paths. Let’s just say that Greenfield is pretty famous. Me, I have the same name as Marty McFly’s girlfriend in Back to the Future.
The Good, the Bad and the Icky
What I love about Generation Wealth is how “icky” it made me feel, and at the same time, self-righteous. Throughout the documentary, Greenfield weaves together interviews with photos from her archives pushing us to the edge of disgust and bringing us back to a safer space through her self-reflections. Viewers are hooked immediately as she introduces the characters. Greenfield invokes her “elite” background as a private school kid and Harvard alum to bring us legit experts on subject of excess, intermingled with people who have pervaded popular culture in the last quarter century. There’s former Toddlers and Tiaras star, Eden, “I want to have money — money, money, money. Money as big as this room” (I won’t spoil it for you and tell you want she wants to do with it). Greenfield’s friend, Paris Cronin (whose father was the lead singer of REO Speedwagon), makes one of the most chilling observations in the entire film, “If you watch anything long enough, you’re gonna kinda think it’s real, you’re gonna start making decisions based on what you’ve seen on TV.” I have two words for you: The Apprentice.
When I am uncomfortable, I laugh. That was my response when we I first came upon Kacey Jordan in Generation Wealth, a gorgeous scantily-clad albeit twenty-two-year-old porn star who is petting a stuffed animal she received as a souvenir on her trip to Dubai. Wanna know what she was doing in Dubai? “The Prince.” Luckily, there are a few voices of sanity that show up throughout the film like journalist Chris Hedges who explains, “We’re a completely pornified culture. It’s leached into popular culture.” Not only do we find pole dancing exercise classes in Generation Wealth, but girls are taught from a young age that their bodies are currency — the more attractive the property, the more valuable the commodity.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Chris Hedges has come to look at mass culture and particularly television as form of violence, “because twenty-four hours a day this fictitious lifestyle, which we’re all told that we can have, fuels this sense of inadequacy.” Greenfield says “people used to compare themselves to their neighbors and they aspired to the neighbor that had a little bit more than they had. What’s changed is that now people spend more time with the people they see on TV than with their actual neighbors, and they want what they have.” This makes me ponder what the hell was going on in Egypt when they were building the pyramids. I mean, if what Hedges says is correct, “Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment they face death,” and we all know that the Egyptians were an advanced society albeit a bit unethical when it came to day laborers, so I wonder if they were watching Keeping up with the Tutankhamun’s?” I’m guessing that since King Tut married his half-sister, who was also his cousin, that the Pharaoh wasn’t playing with a full gene pool. The boy king didn’t have the best economic interests of his kingdom at heart — he really did take it all with him.
Sound familiar? If societies go on whack-a-do spending sprees right before going tummy-tuck-up then the United States dropping off the gold standard in 1971 could mean we better all be learning Russian in a screaming hurry because we no longer have assets backing our own currency. “Abandonment of the gold standard led to abandonment of fiscal discipline. Print like crazy, make it like crazy,” exclaims Florian Homm in Generation Wealth. Forgive me, but the Harvard MBA, grandson of a Nazi, fugitive from U.S. criminal Justice is my absolute favorite character in Generation Wealth because he’s so bad, he’s good. The former tycoon, who at one time had a net worth of 800 million dollars depending on the exchange rate, went from being the poster boy of Wall Street to one of the FBI’s ten most wanted criminals. He’s also born again, living on the German dole, and seems to feel authentic regrets about prioritizing work over family. Don’t let the picture of the well-coiffed, Cuban cigar smoking, six foot seven, former hedge fund manager fool you, or Homm, who is surely spot on in saying “success becomes its own perpetual vehicle. You’re part of this game where the more, the better, again, and a billion is better than a hundred million.” He says he was a “hamster in a diamond-studded, gold wheel.” It seems hard to feel sorry for the guy but I actually do. Maybe when you see Generation Wealth, you will too.
Directed by: Lauren Greenfield
Sundance Film Festival 2018 (opening night film)