“I was the happiest girl in the world,” a glamorous red-haired woman says about the first time she bought a Louis Vuitton luxury handbag. “Everybody bows to the bag. And then I said, ok, what next?” Shots of this unnamed subject speaking animatedly about the admiration her bag brought her are interspersed with bright, colorful photographs of well-dressed people shopping for handbags. A Birkin bag carved out of stone briefly appears. We never see this woman again, but it doesn’t matter — she could be anyone.
Exploring this commonly found consumerist ideal — the desire to have more and more — is the heart of Generation Wealth, a new documentary by filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield, which hits theaters July 20. What is our aggressive pursuit of wealth and, for women, the perfect commodifiable body, doing to us? And is there any way back from the brink? There’s no one satisfying answer, but Greenfield attempts to find it anyway, going back through the past two and a half decades of her career photographing the rich, powerful, and famous, trying to grasp why her subjects can’t seem to get enough.
Greenfield has explored these topics in previous films — David and Jackie Siegel, who were the subjects of her hit 2012 documentary Queen of Versailles, and some of the women from THIN, her 2006 HBO documentary about women with severe eating disorders, make appearances. We are also introduced to a wide cast of characters from Greenfield’s documentary past, whom she revisits to see how their lives have changed in the years following their pursuit of wealth: a former California teenager trying to keep up with her wealthy classmates; the hard partying son of the singer of REO Speedwagon; a high-powered woman working in finance; one of the stars of Toddlers & Tiaras, who says all she desires is money, and her mom. The list goes on, with subjects spanning the last 25 years of Greenfield’s career.
The film follows Greenfield as she revisits her subjects, seeing how their views on wealth and physical perfection have changed. Most of her interviewees, later on in their lives, have experienced the destruction that greed wreaks. Some lament the time lost with their families instead spent in the office. The women she first photographed in their teens and twenties remark on how much trauma the intense focus on their bodies has caused them. One former rapper and a former teen LA partier have switched gears completely, becoming fathers whose only focus is the happiness of their children.
Together, the interviews and included photographs from Greenfield’s 2017 book Lauren Greenfield: Generation Wealth offer a broad overlook of what one of the experts included in the film describes as the last hurrah of a society in decline. “We are dying in the same way that empires have died throughout history,” he says. “The difference is that this time when we go down the whole planet’s going down with us.”
The breadth of the film can feel unwieldy, with so many subjects and so many facets of wealth to explore, but it manages to keep perspective by circling back to Greenfield’s career. In Generation Wealth we learn of Greenfield’s childhood and her own ambitious mother, her early days in photography, her marriage, and the growth of her family alongside her skyrocketing career. The film is as much an exploration of wealth as it is one artist’s personal retrospective. It takes years for Greenfield to understand the theme of obsession and rapaciousness that runs through her work, and we see the director come to understand how her own artistic pursuits mirror the material ones of her subjects.
In home footage we see her family growing frustrated with her constant filming and photographing of them. At one point, her younger son holds a hand-drawn sign up in front of the camera reading “You have a problem.” At another, while interviewing her older son, Greenfield learns that her kids have felt similarly to the kids of the ultra-wealthy that she interviews: like second fiddle to her pursuit of her career. “Even though I wasn’t going for tons of money or the perfect body, I was always looking for more and more,” she says.
At times, Generation Wealth can feel like it’s drowning in the large questions it is attempting to answer. As a study of capitalist obsession, it’s a fascinating and at times frantic look at the very bizarre world we are all strangely accustomed to. It’s jarring to look at these shiny photos of teenagers in nose job casts and toddlers dolled up for the stage and recognize the world I know in them, even as I am, at times, repulsed. However, Generation Wealth at least triumphs in its intimate portraiture of one woman’s long, prolific career, an artist in pursuit of meaningful creation, and an obsessive documentarian navigating the line between ambition and her responsibility and love for her family. It’s an uncomfortable look in the mirror, but luckily for the viewer, the artist doesn’t exempt herself. That is, at least, the most honest one can be about a mindset that infects us all.