September 20, 2019

‘Generation Wealth’ Examines the Culture of Excess

In her 2012 documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” filmmaker Lauren Greenfield told the story of billionaires who went bankrupt trying to build the biggest mansion in America amid the Great Recession of 2008. The film went beyond the perils of money and real estate to explore American society in general, including body image issues and the pursuit of beauty, youth and fame. 

In her latest documentary, “Generation Wealth,” Greenfield explores those issues further, using her vast photographic and film archive as a catalyst to tell more cautionary tales about money failing to buy happiness. 

Greenfield’s subjects include porn stars, strippers, a child pageant queen and a boy celebrating his bar mitzvah with scantily clad dancers at the Whiskey a Go Go. But she also turns her lens on herself and her Jewish family.

“I always have been more of the journalist, staying out of the picture,” Greenfield told the Journal. “But this time, I was turning 50 and thinking about what I had done, and I felt like it was time to be more transparent about the process. I wanted it to be more of my journey, and I started interviewing my parents and my kids as representatives of their generations. There were things that came out in the conversations with my mom and with my son Noah that we had never talked about before off-camera. I felt like it spoke to all of us being complicit in this story.”

Although Judaism isn’t specifically discussed, Greenfield finds familiar Jewish themes in the film.

“In the end, it’s really all about family and community and values, doing something positive for society, and that’s part of Judaism,” she said. “My dad talks about how his dad taught him that you have to make the world a better place or have a social impact with your work and your life, but there has always been this conflict between materialism and those values.”

Greenfield’s father, a professor, was raised in an observant Russian-Jewish family; her mother, a psychologist, came from Reform German-Jewish heritage. Her family celebrated Jewish holidays but her parents “didn’t really push a lot of religion on me,” she said. Greenfield had her bat mitzvah at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, where her Harvard-bound son Noah, now 18, followed suit, and her 12-year-old son Gabriel will have his bar mitzvah next spring.

“I felt like now was the time to ring the bell about going toward an unsustainable future, both for the environment, for the economy, for families and for our souls.”
— Lauren Greenfield

In 2017, Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Joel Nickerson invited her to show images and clips from the unfinished film at Yom Kippur services. 

“I asked him why, and how [he thought the film] relates to the themes of Yom Kippur,” Greenfield recalled. “He talked about having an awakening and thinking about how we are living our lives. That really resonated with me. I think the whole third act of the film is influenced by that — this idea of how it’s possible to wake up  and, even in the depths of despair, there is a possibility for insight and agency.” 

Greenfield also wanted to explore the theme of addiction “that drives all of the subjects, even myself,” including obsessions with technology, plastic surgery, spending, or in her case, work. “I think addiction comes from a kind of emptiness or void we are trying to fill,” she said.

She wasn’t afraid to expose her own flaws and foibles in the film. “I love that the Jewish tradition supports the ability to be self-critical,” she said.

A theme Greenfield stresses in the film is that the meaning of the American Dream has been perverted.

“The American Dream of my dad’s generation meant the possibility of social mobility, defined by hard work, discipline and frugality. The goal was to give your kids a better life. It was success for a purpose, building a community, roots and family. But it has morphed into a kind of bloated dream defined by celebrity and access and narcissism,” she said. “I felt like now was the time to ring the bell about going toward an unsustainable future, both for the environment, for the economy, for families and for our souls.”

Greenfield spent three years on “Generation Wealth,” which includes images she culled from her archive of more than 500,000 photos she snapped over 25 years (some of which are in a photo exhibition now on tour in Europe). Screenings at the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals earlier this year elicited very emotional reactions, she said. 

“It’s a film that brings up a lot of personal issues for people that are very complicated, about relationships and money and their bodies,” she said. “But I felt like I had to show the devastating reality of what the consequences are.”
While viewers may feel anger, pity or revulsion toward the film’s subjects, “we also learn from them,” she said. “They are the truth-tellers. At the end, many of them are saying that they didn’t follow what really matters. [The subjects] who have seen the dark side give us hope that we can live differently.”

Greenfield — who is now working on a “verité political film” and “starting a new company to represent female voices in films, commercials and branded content” — said she hopes audiences will get the message that problems with wealth and materialism are prevalent throughout American culture.

The story underlying her films, “is not just a family building the biggest house in America, or just Donald Trump or just Kim Kardashian — it’s about us,” she said. “We are all complicit in ‘Generation Wealth.’ This is our culture and we need to be responsible for it.”

“Generation Wealth” opens in theaters July 20.