Excess, abundance and addiction: the garish, ugly world of Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth

This documentary heaves with Venice Beach brats with four-figure allowances, and strippers writhing around inhundred-dollar bills.

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Excess, abundance and addiction have been the chosen subjects of the photographer and film-maker Lauren Greenfield for most of her career, and her new documentary Generation Wealth continues that trend. In the first 20 minutes alone, we meet a six-year-old beauty pageant contender who likes to kiss money, and a man whose parents held his Bar Mitzvah at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub. The screen heaves with footage of Venice Beach brats with four-figure allowances and strippers writhing around in hundred-dollar bills. All the skin has a gloss to it, as though it’s been basted or wrapped in cling film. One unfortunate woman had a different sort of Sheen on her: that’s Lacey, a young porn actor whose tip from the star of Two and a Half Men was a ball of cocaine large enough to make Sisyphus baulk.

Talking heads deliver portentous predictions (“When we go down, the whole planet’s going to go with us”) and point out that images of unattainable abundance foster a collective social inadequacy. It was Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 debut novel Less Than Zero, a desensitised study of youthful alienation and amorality in LA, that first gave Greenfield the idea of training her lens on her classmates. She was a less-affluent member of that set, so ashamed of the car her father drove that she never brought friends home – and Ellis himself turns up here in expensive frames to reflect on the corroded culture he helped define. The Kardashians and Donald Trump get walk-on parts but the trouble with this subject is its ubiquity. “It’s the air we breathe,” says Greenfield. “It’s everywhere.”

That’s bad news for any documentary that aspires to be incisive. The first half of Generation Wealth is diffuse and far less pointed than Greenfield’s last picture, The Queen of Versailles, which followed a wealthy couple building America’s largest house on the cusp of the credit crunch. In her quest for definition, Greenfield has shaped the new film into a self-analytical retrospective, untangling the motives behind her own fascination with wealth, asking why validation is tied up in spurious notions of financial success rather than, say, family life. Her narration incorporates reheated epiphanies (“I realised that no matter how much people had, they always wanted more”) as she returns to the crucible of her own insecurities: an arm’s-length relationship with her workaholic mother, which Greenfield has now reproduced with her own sons.

One advantage to this biographical slant is that it makes the film-maker more or less level with her subjects. She may not exhibit outwardly the same wear-and-tear as the woman who undergoes cosmetic surgery in Brazil without general anaesthetic. And she hasn’t sunk as low as poor Lacey, who catches salmonella after a particularly repulsive porn shoot, then has three nose jobs. Greenfield does, however, seem cognisant of her own wounds. It’s just that they’re not terribly compelling in the form in which she dramatises them here. A calculated scene in which Greenfield’s partner turns the camera on her produces nothing of interest, and she seems to have learned little by the time her swanky new book arrives, telling her young son excitedly that it is dedicated to him and his brother. That’ll keep him warm at night.

As the film advances towards its higgledy piggledy conclusion, the most unlikely people start waking up to the consequences of their behaviour. “I’m a hamster on a diamond-studded gold wheel,” says the German hedge fund manager wanted by the FBI for defrauding investors out of $200m. But the question of whether lessons have been learned and cycles broken remains moot.

A Glenda Gekko figure who always valued her art collection over people now has an infant daughter who carries a bag bearing the words “Future CEO”. This new mum, a Kristen Wiig character in waiting, beams proudly at her child. “I think she knows not to touch the art,” she says. And here at the climactic exhibition is Courtney née Daveney née Lacey, who once uploaded to YouTube a video of her own suicide attempt. Now she’s taking pictures of the pictures of herself – and Greenfield is filming her doing it. 

Generation Wealth (15)
dir: Lauren Greenfield

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact