For the past 25 years, acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has travelled the world, documenting a vast range of cultural movements and moments. After so much seeking and searching, she realized that much of her work pointed at one uniting phenomenon: wealth culture. With her new film, Generation Wealth, Greenfield puts the pieces of her life’s work together for in an incendiary investigation into the pathologies that have created the richest society the world has ever seen — as she examines some of the serious repercussions that wealth culture has created. Spanning consumerism, beauty, gender, body commodification, aging and more, Greenfield has created a cautionary tale about a culture heading straight for the cliff’s edge. Generation Wealth, simultaneously a deeply personal journey, rigorous historical essay, and raucously entertaining exposé, bears witness to the global boom-bust economy, the corrupted American Dream, and the human costs of capitalism, narcissism, and greed. I talked to Greenfield several years ago about her fascinating documentary, The Queen of Versailles, and was thrilled to sit down with her again to discuss her new film which is, in a way, is a continuation of that work.
Danny Miller: I have so many of my own issues with wealth that I should just take your documentaries with me into therapy because they always butt up against my baggage. On the one hand, I feel like I can use your films to confirm my biases and judgments of rich people, but on the other hand, you always present such a human picture of them that it makes me stop in my tracks. I was interested to see the subjects of The Queen of Versailles, David and Jackie Siegel, pop up again in this film. It seemed that they had learned some important lessons by the end of that documentary but it doesn’t seem like those lessons have really taken hold.
Lauren Greenfield: What was so amazing and also disillusioning to me, and what inspired this film to some extent, is the way the Siegels went right back to where they were before the financial crash. At the end of The Queen of Versailles, I really felt that they had reached some very hard-learned lessons. David says he shouldn’t have built so many buildings, Jackie realizes that she cares more about her family and that she didn’t need the world’s largest house. They lose the house by the end of the film, but it’s okay because they’ve gained their values, right? But then what happens? Since the film, they’ve borrowed money to buy back the land and they’re still trying to build that gigantic house!
Yikes. And they supported Trump, which we see in the new film. I was kind of sad to see them at one of his rallies in the new film because I had really grown to admire Jackie.
Their story really drove it home to me that it’s not so much about the money: this is about addiction and relapse is often part of that process. People often don’t learn anything until they hit rock bottom and even after that sometimes there’s change and sometimes there isn’t. When the financial crash happened, I thought all of the stories were connecting into a kind of morality tale where we learned our lesson as a society but then when I saw what has been happening since then I realized it wasn’t that simple. That’s why I wanted to continue exploring this topic.
So some people in those dire circumstances can finally get a grip on what’s really important to them and change paths. But for others, the second there’s an opportunity to return to the old lifestyle, they just can’t help themselves.
Exactly. Is the change sustained, or is it limited to the moment of suffering? For me, the story I tell in the film about what happened in Iceland is an example of a culture that used the financial crash to rethink their values and put in place some institutional changes as a society where they could be who they wanted to be. But here we just put Band-aids on a broken system, you know, the whole “too big to fail” thing. We bailed out the banks and now we find ourselves heading into the same situation.
Hearing from the kids of some of the people in this film was really heartbreaking. I want to watch my biases and believe that extremely wealthy people can have great relationships with their loved ones but it seems like there are some real obstacles to that for people who are that driven.
Yes, I agree. Again, it’s not about the money, it’s about what’s driving the drive. And that’s why thinking about it in terms of addiction was so powerful. If you are Bill Gates and you have a great idea that makes a lot of money, it’s not the money that’s the problem. He has a lot of money and he can do great things for society. But looking at the addition, I think what we see with the subjects of the film is a kind of emptiness or void or trauma maybe going back as far as childhood that fuels whatever they’re trying to get — whether it’s money or beauty or youth or fame. But it never actually heals that emptiness so they just keep wanting more.
Given your body of work, it must have been overwhelming to figure out what to include in this film. You could have just focused on billionaires or revisiting the affluent young people that you profiled years ago, or any number of things. How did you decide what to include and what not to include?
When I started this process, I was thinking more about a narrow definition of wealth from my work on consumerism, but when my focus shifted to the insecurity and addiction underlying all these stories, I realized the film was more about what we think gives us value and how that gets leveraged in our culture. And so that brought me to look at the commodification of girls’ bodies which had been a big area in my work from how little girls are affected by fashion or innocent games of dress-up to teenagers and social media to leveraging sex for money to getting older and having to like keep that value of your body and your looks. I just started following all the tentacles of wealth and trying to bring them together. I felt that you couldn’t understand our society, including things like the rise of Donald Trump, just by looking at money, it’s about so much more. There are so many pieces to this story that I think help reveal where we find ourselves as a culture today and we need to try to deconstruct that in order to get out of the matrix.
Did you consider making the Trump phenomenon a more explicit part of the film?
I didn’t want it to be too big of a piece. I included the rally where you see David and Jackie Siegel and Trump saying, “This isn’t about me, it’s about you.” That’s what I wanted to leave the audience with: Trump is a symptom, he’s not the disease. What has happened in our culture over the last 25 years was laying the foundation to make him possible.
It was so interesting to me the way you wove your own story with your family into the film, I thought that was very brave since you show some very vulnerable moments. At first I wondered how it fit but then when you got into the thread of drive and addiction, it seemed to make total sense. I really admired your sons in the film, and I was particularly impressed by your younger son’s poem called “Legacy” that he reads on camera. He so gets it. Was it a hard decision to include your family in the film?
It was, and not something I expected to do the beginning. But just as you were saying when we started talking about how the film made you think about your own relationship to wealth, I felt I had to be transparent about my own process. My work has been so dependent on the kind of honesty and bravery and vulnerability of my subjects that I felt like I needed to be willing to be in there without makeup, I felt like the content demanded it. It wasn’t so much about fame and fortune for me, but it was definitely about accomplishment and a kind of obsession that I think a lot of artists have. It made me want to look at where’s that coming from in me.
One of the most moving moments in the film for me is when the Florian, the former billionaire hedge fund guy, tells the story about a dinner he was having with his wife in a harbor with all these big yachts and he asked her which one she wanted. She said the only gift she wanted was for him to stay off his phone for an hour so they could have a nice dinner together. So poignant to see the tears well up in his eyes as he tells that story. And another one was when your older son admits that you weren’t around for a lot of his childhood and then he sees your reaction to that behind the camera and asks if you’re okay.
I feel like my documentaries and my photography have always been about those kinds of unexpected moments — decisive moments that in some way reveal truth. For me, those moments with my family helped me connect the dots in my own brain, and those moments with the different characters where they have realizations about their own journeys is what I live for — when something is revealed in real time that allows the audience to see things in a different way. In my case, since this film was about me going back and looking at all my photography work over the years, I realized that it was very much about point of view. Let’s face it, this is not an objective medium, it’s about a person seeing things in a certain way so I felt it was time, even though I’d never done it before, to look back and try to expose why I was drawn to these things.
Do you feel you want to do something entirely different next or do you think these are themes that will always be in your work?
I do feel like I am able to close this chapter to some extent, it’s cathartic in that way. I feel like I can start something new, but the truth is that my work has always built upon the last thing, so I’m sure in some ways I’ll keep building on these ideas.