Film

'Generation Wealth' Turns Too Soft a Light Upon America's Nouveau Riche

Photo by Lauren Greenfield - © All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute pro (IMDB)

Flamboyance and bombast prove to be Generation Wealth's most common thread, which serves as an upsetting indictment of the American Way.

Generation Wealth
Lauren Greenfield

Amazon Studios

20 Jul 2018

Other

Lauren Greenfield's Generation Wealth wants to be a searing odyssey into the self-destructive behavior of the Post-90s "new rich": a wealth for wealth's sake class that continues to amass obscene amounts of money from its gross exploitation of America's obsession with social class and the often sexually charged visual stimuli that accompanies it. To accomplish this ambitious task, Greenfield — a highly acclaimed photojournalist and documentary filmmaker— has revisited several of her rich and/or reckless subjects from her 25 year career. The result is a searing, dizzying, but ultimately uneven vision of wealth fixation.

Greenfield provides a kaleidoscopic sampling of mini-biographical accounts from more than a dozen individuals, as well as broader coverage of countries under the thralls of global corporatization. In so doing, she sacrifices critical nuance or detail of any single subject (for this, refer to her 2012 hit The Queen of Versailles, an intimate portrayal of the multi-billionaire Siegel family's fall from grace). Greenfield's omission is clearly intentional, as her goal is to discomfort and overwhelm through a breathless visual assault of garish imagery.

Indeed, flamboyance and bombast proves to be the film's most common thread, which serves as an upsetting indictment of the American Way. One moment, the focus is on Suzanne — a 40-year-old hedge fund manager and workaholic with a Wall Street "rock star" image — who spends stratospheric amounts of money on bombastic clothes and contemporary art. Shortly after, the film follows mega-socialite Tiffany Masters, a Las Vegas uber-hostess who tirelessly spends all hours in limousines and deafening dance clubs, entertaining her nightlife indulgent clientele. The spectrum expands, with the stupendously flashy Limo Bob, a luxury transportation entrepreneur who adorns 33 pounds of gold jewelry, and boasts a 100-foot limousine of his own.

Trailer still

For each subject, Greenfield's camera is remarkably effective at juxtaposing their lavishness with several close-ups of their exhausted faces, strained and stressed. Indeed, if Greenfield stayed true to this style for what would have been a breathtaking 90 minutes, Generation Wealth would have served as a pointed indictment on American iconography. But problematically, Greenfield keeps bloating her interview field to the point where her thematic thread becomes exceedingly thin.

Interviews with former adult star Kasey Jordan, accompanied by disturbingly graphic imagery and her resulting trauma, warrant a deeper psychological examination into her decisions and to the adult entertainment industry. However, the film's insistence on quickly shifting between Jordan and other socialites, many of whom wind up happily married or are still remarkably well off, creates an unwanted sampling effect. Such breadth of source material may work in a photo collection where one can choose to spend several minutes with each picture. However, this method doesn't translate well to a documentary where focused consideration of those truly hurt by excess is necessary to have a lasting emotional impact.

trailer still

Similarly, Greenfield's treatment of extreme wealth gaps on a broader scale is cursory, relegated to a single academic powerhouse — radical progressive author and journalist Chris Hedges — who theorizes about how worldwide obsession with excessive wealth parallels the behavior of the Roman Empire prior to its precipitous downfall. Hedges' position is complemented by images of handbag parties in China, lavish libraries in Russia exclusively for display, and aerial photos of palatial properties decorated with an embarrassment of frivolities. Later on, in a post 2008 economic crash montage matched with a booming dystopian score, a rash of imagery of foreclosed mansions hammer Hedges' theory home.

This obvious juxtaposition plays like a quick infomercial, as opposed to a more careful socioeconomic or psychological investigation into how the excesses of a few can affect various population demographics. Greenfield could have carved out the time for this analysis, but she instead dedicates nearly a quarter of Generation Wealth to her own family narrative. The result is self-promotional and congratulatory, as opposed to self-effacing.

Photo by Lauren Greenfield - © All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute pro (IMDB)


From the looks of it, Greenfield's two sons — Noah and Gabriel — could have used more time with their jet-setting, workaholic mother. But as presented in the film, they live in a well-furnished home with an ultimately loving family, and have grown to be two wonderful kids. Noah, a whip smart and socially consciousness high school senior with a perfect ACT score to boot, has earned a ticket to an elite university. Gabriel, his younger brother, shows immense talent as a writer, and appears well on his way to enjoying a successful young-adulthood. Their mother is a world renowned artist who, by the end of the film, will have opened a major photo exhibition.

All to say, Laura's treatment of her own family, imperfect maybe but seemingly just fine, continuously muddles the film's ostensible objective to veer into the darker and destructive annals of wealth obsession. It also begs the question as to whether Greenfield carefully took the time to focus on who her audience is.

If indeed Greenfield's goal is to establish a cautionary tale for those cannot afford to indulge in pop cultural obsessions, she would have been better served more closely following Cathy Grant, a working class bus driver who gets so addicted to extensive plastic surgery, that she swamps herself in crippling credit debt. Here, Greenfield's fly on the wall approach is deeply unsettling, portraying in several long takes both Cathy's surgery and post-surgical scars. The pace here is not merely informational, but emotionally immersive. So for that matter are the years which follow Cathy's surgery, which effectively convey a harsher side of reality TV's carnival of riches.

But even Cathy represents a certain degree of extremism which does not touch a nerve with how "generation wealth" effects everyday people, who live outside of Los Angeles, have full-time jobs, loans to pay, kids to support. For most, the greater concern about "excess" is spending $100 on a much needed night out, let alone $10k on plastic surgery. The more pressing question is still what kind of a country do we live in that it prioritizes spending inordinate sums of money for vanity, instead of food, fair housing, or greater educational opportunity for lower-income kids. Much of the extremely wealthy and their acolytes don't claim responsibility to these questions. But a truly probative documentary on wealth should do just that. Generation Wealth will appall, but it is unlikely to enlighten.

5

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.