January 19, 2020

Lauren Greenfield exhibition examines how wealth skews values

Lauren Greenfield

In a portrait by the esteemed photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, a plump 13-year-old named Adam romps with a go-go dancer at his bar mitzvah at West Hollywood’s Whisky a Go Go nightclub in the early 1990s.

“You see him with his face exactly in line with [her breasts],” Greenfield, widely regarded as a preeminent chronicler of the cultures of wealth and beauty, said during a recent telephone interview. “So you have this funny and ironic coming-of-age in what’s supposed to be this religious rite of passage. But it looks almost like a sexual coming of age.”

Adam’s portrait is one of more than 200 photographs, transcribed interviews and films on display in Greenfield’s newest exhibition, “Generation Wealth,” at the Annenberg Space for Photography through Aug. 13. The solo show is accompanied by a hefty monograph of the same name.

The book and the show trace Greenfield’s career over the past quarter-century, during which she created groundbreaking work exploring society’s evolving obsession with bling and its consequences. “It’s about the influence of affluence,” she said.

Organized into sections with titles such as “The Princess Brand” and “The Cult of Celebrity,” the work spotlights subjects such as Emily, 10, who appears basking in a Jacuzzi at The Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills. She and her family had been living there with their servants for three months after their two mansions were seized by the federal government — the result of her father’s forfeiture on tax evasion charges.

In other photos, a 6-year-old beauty pageant winner poses with her tongue provocatively protruding from her mouth; a plastic surgeon with a celebrity clientele prepares to inject aging lips with Botox; and the wife of a Russian oligarch stands in the library of her Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home — where the shelves are stocked solely with copies of her self-published photography book. These are balanced by pictures of people such as a teenager from South Central Los Angeles who prepares to attend his prom, which he could afford only after saving money for years.

“But this project is not about actual wealth,” Greenfield said during a recent lecture at the Annenberg. “It’s really about … our aspiration to wealth … the way we emulate it and package it and export our notions of it, [like] a contagious virus — the addictive culture of consumerism.”

Greenfield’s work describes the concept of wealth “very broadly,” she explained. “I’ve included the currency of fame, of branding, of the body, of youth.”

Materialism is a crucial part of the new American dream, she said, “but in the end, it’s an empty form.”

At the lecture, Greenfield projected slides that sometimes drew laughs or gasps from the audience: A woman who had paid for her Doberman pinscher’s facelift; a socialite showing off one of her four seasonal closets; and Adam, the bar mitzvah boy.

“Is this Vanity Fair or is this about social change?” one elderly social worker said during the Q&A session.

Greenfield told the lecture audience that her work is not about judging her subjects, but trying to see clearly what’s going on around this issue.

“It’s really hard material, and if you read the interviews, [you will see] a huge amount of pain and suffering, from the rich as well as the poor. It’s really about how we’re lost in this cycle of addiction that doesn’t bring satisfaction.”

Was Greenfield disturbed that patrons of her lecture tittered upon viewing photographs such as Adam’s? “I feel like laughter is the way in,” she told the Journal. “Then what happens is that people read his [words] and … they get brought into a very sad and emotional story.”

In his interview, Adam reflects that money ruins kids and that if your parents don’t spend at least $50,000 on your bar mitzvah, “You’re s— out of luck.” Greenfield said Adam found this kind of competition both empty and scary.

Born in 1966, Greenfield grew up with conflicting views about money. Her parents, who divorced when she was a teenager, didn’t care about the trappings of wealth and raised her, in part, in their separate communes in Venice in the 1970s.

They also valued social action: Her father, Sheldon Greenfield, now a UC Irvine professor of medicine, was a founder of the Venice Family Clinic, where low-income patients receive free medical care. Her mother, Patricia Greenfield, is a UCLA psychology professor.

Even so, Greenfield was not immune to the wealth (and girl) culture she observed at Temple Isaiah, where, she said, one of her friends owned 25 pairs of designer jeans. Greenfield chose to have a bat mitzvah, but she said it wasn’t lavish like Adam’s.

When she attended Santa Monica’s Crossroads School in 11th and 12th grades, her classmates drove expensive cars while an embarrassed Greenfield asked her father to park his jalopy — a used unmarked police car — a block away from school whenever he dropped her off. If she was traumatized by her family’s lack of fancy goods, “My stepmother says it’s OK because I made a career out of it,” she quipped.

After studying visual anthropology at Harvard, Greenfield’s first project, for National Geographic, was documenting a Mayan village — where her mother also happened to be doing research. Ultimately, though, she felt like she did not have “the intimate access or understanding to say something meaningful about what I was seeing,” she said during her lecture.

“I started thinking that … some of the things I had seen growing up were actually worthy of the same kind of serious study that anthropologists and photojournalists usually give to foreign cultures,” she said.

Greenfield returned home and began photographing teenagers at her old school, Crossroads, and elsewhere. That prompted her first book, “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood,” about how “kids were influenced by the values of materialism, the cult of celebrity and the importance of image,” she said.

One picture captures a Beverly Hills High student riding in a convertible with the popular kids at the beach. In her interview, she told Greenfield that while she did not come from a rich family, her good looks had gained her entry into the elite school clique.

“So one of the things that I looked at … was the commodification of girls and their bodies,” Greenfield said.

A photograph from a subsequent project, “Girl Culture,” shows a 5-year-old shopping for skimpy designer clothes at an upscale boutique.

“In this kind of innocent game of dress-up, you start to see a kind of precocious sexualization,” Greenfield said. “I thought … that if girls see their bodies as a source of value, or a kind of currency, that this can only accelerate [with age].”

Greenfield explored that pressure in her following work, including her documentary “Thin,” about women battling eating disorders. She also captured the struggle, mostly on the part of women, to stave off aging through plastic surgery. In 2012, she released her lauded documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” about the efforts of David and Jackie Siegel, a Florida couple, to build the largest house in the world — even as their efforts were stalled during the financial crash of 2008.

Greenfield’s photographs depict further images of the effect of the crash, such as the emptied swimming pools of foreclosed houses in the Inland Empire. There also are pictures exploring how the wealth culture has been exported to countries such as Ireland, Dubai and China, where a socialite appears with a logo of her favorite commercial brand tattooed on her neck.

During the era of President Donald Trump, whose preference for gilded furnishings mirrors that of the Siegels, Greenfield’s project is meant as a cautionary tale.

“We’ve got to get back to what matters,” she told the Journal, referring to the values her parents taught her: “To make a difference, a contribution, doing meaningful work, and caring about community and family.”


Lauren Greenfield’s exhibition, “Generation Wealth,” runs at the Annenberg Space for Photography through Aug. 13. For more information about the exhibition, visit annenbergphotospace.org.