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'Generation Wealth' Explores the Dark Side of Chasing Money

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Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

What do an ex-porn star, the mother of a toddler beauty pageant queen and a former financier have in common? They’re among the individuals who share their stories about being addicted to money, status and materialism—and what it cost them—in photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary Generation Wealth. The film is part of a multi-platform project she’s been working on since 2008, which also includes a photography book and exhibition.

Greenfield was in town for the San Francisco International Film Festival back in April and Academy Art U News got together with her to talk about this unsettling documentary.

 “The Generation Wealth project was born out of the [2008] financial crash,” said Greenfield. “When that happened, I saw such similar imagery and behavior and consequences all over the world. I traveled to places like California, Dubai, Iceland, Ireland. It was kind of like all of the stories I’d been doing about materialism, celebrity, body image and pop culture had a consequence. It was like a morality tale, and so I started thinking about bringing it all together. That began the journey that ended up in this film.”

Those earlier stories include The Queen of Versailles, her award-winning 2012 documentary. That film followed Jackie and David Siegel, wealthy owners of a timeshare company who were in the middle of building the largest, most expensive single-family home in the U.S. when the housing bubble burst and derailed the project. Generation Wealth also weaves in Greenfield’s fascination with body image and how we teach girls that their bodies are a commodity, subjects she explored in the documentary Thin and photography book Girl Culture. She also directed Like a Girl, a stereotype-busting commercial for the 2015 Super Bowl that went viral.

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

The individuals Greenfield focuses on in Generation Wealth come from all walks of life.  They include Florian Homm, a former high-profile financier who describes how his insatiable appetite for money left him with nothing—and landed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for swindling clients. There’s also Cathy Grant, a bus driver addicted to plastic surgery. And ex-porn star Kacey Jordan. Infamous for partying with actor Charlie Sheen, Jordan equated happiness with wealth and willingly degraded herself to get it. Instead of finding happiness, she ends up depressed and addicted to drugs. While it would be easy to condemn these characters for their shallow values and the harm they’ve caused themselves and others, Greenfield succeeds in making us empathize with them. 

“I try not to be judgmental and to really let people’s stories come out so they can explain why they do the things they do,” she remarked. “In many cases, I was going back to people I had long relationships with. Establishing trust and access is a huge part of the work I do and always has been.”

Greenfield also turns the camera on herself and her family in Generation Wealth, something she’s never done before. She may not be addicted to money. But she confesses to being a workaholic. She parallels her addiction to work to the materialistic addictions of her documentary subjects and worries that she’s not spending enough time with her kids. At one point in the film, her youngest son reads an essay he wrote about his family’s impressive legacy and his fears that he can’t live up to it.

“I was very moved by his piece,” said Greenfield. “It really speaks to how my family is kind of complicit in this constant ‘you’re not good enough, you’ve got to work harder’ mentality.” 

Greenfield was often surprised by what she learned while making Generation Wealth. She cited Kim Kardashian’s rise to mainstream celebrity after appearing in a sex tape, and the fact that many kids idolize her anyway, as a troubling example of our culture’s warped values. 

“We’ve become a kind of moral-neutral society because of the way we relate to fame, fortune and lifestyle,” she said. “When I was talking to kids and asking them what they want to be when they grow up, they most often said ‘rich and famous’ instead of a fireman, policeman or President of the United States. That really shocked me. And related to that is the increasing pornification of our society.”

Perhaps even more disturbing is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges’ take on these changes. Author of the book Empire of Illusion, he compares what’s happening now in America to the amped up greed and depravity that marked the Fall of the Roman Empire and believes we’re headed for a similar fate. Except when we crash and burn, we’ll take the rest of the world with us. Greenfield shares some of Hedges’ views. But her outlook for the future isn’t quite so grim.  

“I get hope from the stories of the characters in the film and from their insights as they’ve learned where they went wrong, and where we [as a society] have gone wrong,” she explained. “I feel like in the insights, we learn there’s a possibility for agency and change. There’s this idea of waking up and being conscious of what’s going on around you. I think there’s power in that.”

 

Generation Wealth is now playing in San Francisco.