GENERATION WEALTH is the latest documentary film from photojournalist and filmmaker and Lauren Greenfield. Her art and film has become fascinated with the abundance and absurdity of the mega rich and ultra elite. Generation Wealth is a Amazon Studios production, and some critics are skeptical of the constant churning out of new, in-your-face, often never that revealing content on distribution platforms like Amazon and Netflix - quality over quantity and all that. And quality sometimes seems harder to come by in an age of digital fatigue and binge watching. Yet Generation Wealth not only indulges in narratives about excess, but becomes a narrative of excess itself. This is a film about how the world fell in love with money. Layered with image after image, shot after relentless shot, plot-lines, anecdotes and streams of consciousness from narrator Greenfield, it seamlessly and unintentionally becomes part of the narrative it tries to critique.
The film itself has become something of a product of a mass consumer audience culture - our desire to watch more, more radical, more shocking, just more and more and more content, is an appetite cultural creators won’t be stopping to feed anytime soon. While some reviewers express a desire for the film to say something new, to have a finer argument, for Greenfield to be less self-indulgent telling her own story - to focus on the negative and less on the hope - and to not include so many abundant character profiles and stories, there is actually something quite unintentionally beautiful in this mass abundance of imagery and stories.
What the critics miss , for all the enthusiasm for a more conventional and concise message, was the connection between Greenfield's excessive mass of features, interviewees, subjects in the film telling what perhaps what at times felt like unconnected stories sharing the broad theme of wealth - or specifically, America (and the world's) mass consumerist obsession with wealth. Her excessive filming, as well as obtrusive filming style projects as one of the film's key themes. Lauren obsessively films her close family as well as her the general subjects of the film, holding them both in her glaring lens- trying to make this a story about her personal relationship with wealth as much as America’s. She tries to deal with the pursuit of wealth as meaning something more than resulting in the material product, the actual process of the pursuit, she sees as something universal - a demand for more, to find meaning and purpose, it whatever form it might take.
The vivid array of stories she tells - rebuffed by critics - transforms an original project of Greenfield’s, photographs taken at an LA High School in 1992 when a young Kim Kardashian was a student there - you can imagine this generation - into filmic form. In Generation Wealth we see Greenfield attempt to arrange and order the images in her home - the photographs pinned up on a whiteboard, each print evoking the story someone who has something to say of the incessant obsession with having more in this world. Indeed, this is not a liminal or concise issue, it is a pervasive and excessive one - theme that Lauren identifies as broader, overarching - and perhaps inherently human ones. To want more, strive to be, or have something just a little better.
Greenfield draws on some pervasive problems in global culture, not just the American Dream which is critiqued in the boldness of the frame of the images she creates with such a quintessential western essence. It is true that bigger conclusions and bolder statements might have been in her interest to make, rather than a focus on her family, of returning to one’s roots and creating a more humble sense of balance in life. At times the obvious contrast in featuring the LA kid (once known at high school Greenfield photographed for having the best-body) now turned Bohemian hippy seemed quote off-beat.
Yet the film seems ironically aware of its voyeuristic emphasis. Excess is the focus of everything featured in the film. It then becomes the film itself. Excess subjects, excess images, excess theme. Even excess endings - the documentary could've ended multiple times, then finally wraps up, not because it has made its final statement, but just because, like every film, it has to eventually.
Documentary photography does not always argue, rather it exists simply to document - to see things as they are. The art of documentary photography is the portrayal of the usual, the everyday, the mundane and mass produced, in a new way. In a sense Generation Wealth modifies the filmic form - even the documentary film form - as it becomes something more like an illustration - this is life as is, this is excess happening right now, everywhere. your neighbor, across the pond, your child… So it may just be worth pressing pause and holding time still in the frame of a photograph. Are any conclusions needed to be drawn when the reality is so glaringly overt?
Unlike Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw I did not find this a frustrating watch, but a revelatory and shocking one. It became fascinating to gorge on these excellent images, and see the people in the photographs come to life and tell their stories. And to get new stories from her new filmic subjects. It was exciting as a viewer to see her project expand - as we, the audience, got more and more and more. Clever, no?
The issues brought up in Generation Wealth seem enhanced in America's fame hungry, consumerist culture. In an unplanned contrast, I watched Generation Wealth straight after watching the acclaimed documentary Searching for Sugar Man, the story of a 70s rock icon that never was. Although he was an unlikely sensation in South African at the time, the now adored Rodriguez missed out fame and fortune in America, never accepted for his sound or image. Even today, when fortune was offered him, he has remained humble and did not adjust his simple lifestyle, never moving his home or asking for more.
I imagine audiences might be puzzled at Rodriguez’s contentment, why, they ask, does he not want more? How could he not want the fame and fortune offered up to him? Which, as the interviewer points out, could have “changed your life for the better.” He says, “well, perhaps not for the better.” Perhaps it was this anti-American dream, humble yet lacking in ‘desire’ was in part, was why America did not accept him.
Greenfield shows, in fact through her personal illustration of her goals and intent, that the desire for more is pervasive, not inherently linked to material ‘mores’ but something else. It’s not really about the product, the mass, status symbol, or ‘thing’ we end up with, but how the process of getting it makes us feel worthwhile, with a purpose which signifies our identity.
In modern society we are constantly striving for more and more, we measure success on our busyness or productivity - we hold no value on pressing pause, on holding the shutter down and taking a moment to look back and reflect on the image we have taken. If to be busy is to be successful, and success gives you money, what value is there on reflection? Yet without reflection, looking at history, pausing this very moment, we might cease to exist, cease to develop, and certainly, cease to be humble. Greenfield’s documentary is her act of pressing pause. Although it feeds into her self consciousness of striving for more, her admission of this, and subsequently her subject’s admission of their own desire for wealth, is a brief moment of pause and reflection in an otherwise excessively moving world.