As told to
The award-winning documentary filmmaker discusses her latest chronicle of capitalist America, Generation Wealth.
Sundance and Emmy award-winning filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield has spent the last 25 years documenting the impact of consumerism on youth, gender, body image and our wider social mores. Expanding the themes she first began exploring in Thin and The Queen of Versailles, her latest feature, Generation Wealth, examines extremes of affluence and addiction through a series of intimate portraits filmed around the world. From disgraced Wall Street financiers to Chinese etiquette coaches, Russian trophy wives to LA teenagers, the film is a by turns a rigorous historical essay, entertaining exposé and deeply personal journey which bears witness to the human cost of capitalism.
With clarity, humour and self-reflective insight, Greenfield holds her subjects up as a mirror to our own desires, forcing viewers to acknowledge our shared participation in a consumer culture that’s always striving for more. Here she speaks about why it’s important to distinguish between the trend of consumerism and those who participate in it and where else we can look for value and meaning beyond material gains.
“After studying anthropology and working for National Geographic, I went back to LA to take a kind of sociological look at my own culture. I’m really interested in why people do what they do, especially when sometimes it’s irrational. One of the first interviews I did was with Adam, the 13-year-old surrounded by go-go dancers at a Bar Mitzvah in this nightclub. He talks about how extravagant Bar Mitzvah’s are, with people spending $50,000 and how you have to spend that much or you’re ‘shit out of luck’. But then, at the same moment he says that money ruins kids, and he felt like money had ruined him. I was really blown away by how subjects, even when they’re in the eye of the storm, right in the middle of it, can also be the best social critics. People can be so perceptive and honest about what they’re seeing.
“A big part of my work is about how we’re all complicit in this system. In past generations we had more countervailing values to the values of corporate capitalism, and the values of the media and the influence of peers and popular culture. Traditional institutions like religion, shared secular morality, family and community, these are things that formed us as much as television. As traditional institutions have weakened other influences have gotten so much more powerful. I guess that’s why I ended up thinking of family as the antidote – in a way I got there through the insights of the subjects who come to that conclusion. They’re chasing these things that they think are going to bring them happiness – money, beauty, sex, youth, fame – and what they find is that what really matters is family and love and community.
“In my story, Frank shows the importance of fatherhood. He’s able to compensate for the imbalance in my life in a way that has consequences for all of us and some huge positives, especially for him and the kids. The story that I’m telling in my own life is a complete non-story for a man – it’s the way men normally live. The consequences that I experience are also the consequences that many men experience. I hope the moral of the story is non-gendered family.
“This is a film about addiction. You think it’s about money but really it’s about chasing something that we think will bring us happiness and fulfilment. For me the addiction metaphor was so powerful – you see it with Cathy looking for the perfect body, just as somebody with an eating disorder wants to get to a certain weight, or somebody at a bank wants to make a certain amount of money before they retire. Whatever that number or goal is, once you get there it’s not enough. That’s part of the mechanism of capitalism, if you were satisfied you wouldn’t buy anything more. That’s why I’m not critical of the subjects because I think capitalism is designed to exploit these desires. That’s also why I included myself, I definitely have had all of those feelings myself. When I was in high school, I wanted designer clothes and I wanted to be popular and I wanted to be thinner.
“Art and culture allow us to have empathy, and to question what’s around us. Authentic culture is being destroyed by corporate capitalism, but it’s authentic culture which allows us to understand who we are and where we come from. Just because a lot of our media companies are owned by Rupert Murdoch and corporate, for-profit companies, do they not fulfil a function? I would prefer that we had a stronger public-funded media in this country, but on the other hand I wouldn’t take what we have away. I think it plays a really important role. I started working about 10 years ago in advertising because I saw the negative power it can have. If you do something positive with that medium, that’s a huge sphere of influence. A lot my work, even for magazines, has had a subversive quality – I might be talking about the pressures to be thin with photos I’ve taken for the pages of the women’s magazines or the fashion spreads.
“Life is short, make sure you spend time with your family, with friends, because you can’t get that back. It does seem like the biggest cliche in the world but I feel like it was really true for the characters and for me. Wake up to what you already have, look around you and see the wealth that’s there.”
Generation Wealth is in cinemas 20 July. Read the LWLies review.
Published 18 Jul 2018
Lauren Green field surveys the influence of affluence in this captivating documentary.
The director of Leave No Trace talks about the possibility of a total disconnect from the system.
By Andy Tweddle
Lauren Greenfield’s rag-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches doc is a potent and entertaining essay on consumer culture.