Photographer Lauren Greenfield weaves themes of her previous documentaries ('Thin', 'The Queen of Versailles' and various books) to explore the effects that wealth – obscene, unnecessary wealth – has on the children of the elite. Coming from a wealthy background herself, Greenfield returns to the rich kids of her early works to investigate if or how money changed them, before casting the net wider to China, Russia and Iceland, which boomed before the recession and is currently raising a Greed Is Good generation similar to America of the seventies/eighties.
Generation Wealth starts out strongly, likening contemporary culture’s obsession with money, image and fame to the fall of the Roman Empire. This time, we’re warned, it will be the entire planet that will collapse. With women’s bodies a commodity to be exploited, and body image and branding dominating, we are in “a pornified culture” where Sex Tape Broker is an actual job. As Greenfield paints it, nothing good can come from a child raised in an affluent upbringing. There’s also a brief history of the current billionaire culture, tracing the current obsession to the abandonment of the gold standard. One thing led to another and now we have cosmetic surgery for dogs and helicopter pads on stretch limos.
The interviewees all share the same message: there’s Suzanne, a Wall Street businesswoman, only cared about money until she wanted a child; porn star Kacey Jordan climbed the social ladder when she dated Charlie Sheen but later returned to her hometown; a former rapper now living in more meagre surroundings treats his former self like a stranger; and something just clicked with a mother of a child beauty pageant winner and she stopped entering her in competitions. Former hedge fund manager, and later arrested for fraud, Florian Homm cuts an intriguing character. We first meet him hungrily, and sexually if we’re honest, on a large cigar, purring, “I love money… come to me!” He too has regrets, although one of them isn’t bringing his son, who also features here, to an Amsterdam prostitute to lose his virginity.
In pulling in elements from her previous documentaries Greenfield’s comment on the sickness of fortune gets lost about halfway through. The wheels come off and 'Generation Wealth' becomes unfocused as the point drifts into an obsession with work and the effect it has on her family; her parents’ divorce, and how it in turn informs her own motherhood, is explored in unengaging detail. The documentary becomes one of regret and guilt and how we should put aside time for loved ones (complete with sad strings and plinky plonk pianos on the soundtrack).
An argument can be made that the desire to mimic the lives of the rich and famous causes us to lose sight of what’s important but it’s not a strong one, and Greenfield’s epiphany – spend more time with her family – contradicts the joy at having her book published, the research of which caused her to spend time away from her family.
Despite the misstep 'Generation Wealth' deserves a viewing.