Why you should care
Because, through her lens, the United States looks ready for a Rome-level fall.
Lauren Greenfield has spent her career documenting obsessions with wealth and beauty. Her 2012 Sundance film, The Queen of Versailles, which followed a once-billionaire family in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, won her a best documentary director award. She has photographed rich teens in Los Angeles, golden toilets in China and brutal plastic surgery operations — all with an anthropologist’s eye for the grotesque.
With Generation Wealth, which debuted at Sundance this year, she reflects on 25 years of recording cultures of consumerism. The film portrays American society on the verge of collapse, awash in luxury and greed. There’s an urgency to the documentary that demands reflection — and it’s filled with heartbreaking scenes of mothers and fathers addicted to material objects and the tragic legacy they leave their children. But it also shows scenes of redemption, usually after a character has hit rock bottom — raising the notion that a collapse may be just what the U.S. needs.
Greenfield sat down with OZY at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to discuss her film. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What draws you to the subject of wealth and materialism?
Lauren Greenfield: I’ve been interested in consumerism and class since I started as a documentarian. But for this project I expanded my view of wealth to not just include money but also the currency of beauty, the body, sexuality, fame and branding. And I saw a big cultural shift in our values rather than these individual pieces. Why am I interested in this? Part of it comes from my childhood and going to a fancy Hollywood school and trying to navigate that as a teenager. I wanted to have the things everyone had to fit in but also knew that those are not the things I should be caring about. I think it was that conflict in me. Not being fully part of the culture made me see it in a different way, and it made me think that was something worth looking at.
Do you have an outsider’s eye to this aspect of American culture related to consumerism?
Greenfield: I travel this fine line between insider and outsider. I’m insider enough to understand the world and even see the desires in myself but outsider in that I’m always seeing things in a sociological way. In this film I tried to lean in on both in a way.
Do you have an entirely pessimistic view of modern American culture?
Greenfield: I would say this film presents a pretty dark vision about where we have come to, and Trump being elected confirms the direction. I have always felt this project was kind of looking at the fall of Rome and consequences of greed. This subject had to be grappled with now, and I had the archive of work to do it. The urgency of this project comes from us being on an unsustainable path. A lot of what I see now I started to see in the ’90s, and it just got bigger. I feel like it is a little pessimistic in that, if we stay on this path, we are heading to a bad place.
But your film also has stories of redemption, especially after characters hit bottom. Are collapses sometimes necessary?
Greenfield: Yes, I feel like even the 2008 crash was this act of creative destruction. And sometimes that’s what you need. Like in New Orleans, for example — after Katrina the schools had to be closed. But by starting over they went from having the worst school systems to one of the best. In Iceland, which is shown in the film, their fall was so bad that it inspired them to go back to their core values. Unfortunately, what happened to us after the crash is that we just went back to the same thing, and even bigger. So I feel like the hope comes from the idea that we can change and the idea of agency.
The characters often defend their obsessions with wealth and beauty by saying it’s for their children. Why?
Greenfield: The idea of generations became very strong for me — what people do for their children, but also the shit that they pass on unintentionally. In this society, where we are all working overtime and wanting more, people often say they are doing it for their children.
Is there any doubt for you that these materialist values are so detrimental?
Greenfield: I think that Bret Easton Ellis says it well in the film when he says, “I don’t have anything against looking great or driving a BMW. But at the expense of what?” And I think what we see in the film is what that expense is. And what I was interested in was how this related to addiction and how consumerism becomes an addiction that by definition has no satisfaction.
What do you hope people get out of this film?
Greenfield: I hope people see it connect to their own lives and their own choices. We’re all complicit. And there is such power in seeing your own complicity. There’s power in consciousness. There’s power in waking up.