Filmmaker-Photographer Lauren Greenfield on the Rise of ‘Generation Wealth’ and the Fall of the Empire

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While the crash of 2008 unleashed panic on Wall Street and in seats of power worldwide, not much has been done to remedy its causes. In 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Act, expanding government oversight of the U.S. financial system, designed to safeguard against future collapse. But in May, President Trump signed into law a partial rollback of Dodd-Frank, affecting banking regulations.

Although shady financial dealings and banking practices facilitated the crash, low-interest rates and the general public’s impractical desire to own houses and big-ticket items they could not afford drove it. This fact, to photographer and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, pointed to something rotten at the core of American culture.

She goes in search of that rotten something in her new film, “Generation Wealth” on Amazon and in New York and Los Angeles theaters starting July 20. What she finds are variations on the same issues she has examined throughout her career, beginning with “Thin,” her 2007 Emmy-nominated documentary looking at bulimia. Her short, “Kids + Money,” about the impact of too much cash on precocious children in Los Angeles, explores a theme mirrored in her 2012 breakout, “The Queen of Versailles,” about real estate and business tycoon David Siegel and his trophy wife, Jaqueline, whose plans to erect the largest private home in North America go bust when the 2008 crash hits.

“What was going on in this country in the ’80s and ’90s was a demarcation from what had come before,” Greenfield explains. “Materialism has always been a part of the American dream, but it was connected to a purpose. It was about making a contribution, being a part of a society, being part of a community, perpetuating certain values. Those things have kind of gone away, and it has just become about having more, and playing at celebrity and narcissism. I feel like over the past 25 years, it’s just gone on steroids.”

Greenfield’s parents are psychologist and professor Patricia Marks Greenfield and Dr. Sheldon Greenfield, both graduates of Harvard, where Lauren graduated magna cum laude in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in visual and environmental studies. Raised in Venice, Calif., she attended Santa Monica’s prestigious Crossroads School, alongside people like Kim Kardashian and actress Kate Hudson, both of whom appear as teenagers in photos in the film.

“Research shows that the more people see these images of luxury, the more they think that’s how most people live and the more they desire that. When Trump was elected, he was the apotheosis of generation wealth, not just about money but about image, about celebrity, about real estate, about fake it till you make it,” Greenfield says, noting how “keeping up with the Joneses” has literally become “keeping up with the Kardashians.”

“We have this crazy aspirational gap of what we want, which has not correlated to what we can afford. And I think that’s what led us to the buying that brought on the financial crisis. But it’s also what gives us vulnerability for capitalism. It’s a great driver for creating avid consumers.”

In the movie, Cathy Grant neglects her daughter and takes on debt to pay for multiple plastic surgeries. And Kacey Jordan, a porn star and former Charlie Sheen consort, ends up filming her own suicide attempt. The addictive need to literally remake themselves binds both.

“It resonates with what I have seen with eating-disorder patients, where they want to get to a number on the scale,” Greenfield says. “And when they did [reach their desired weight], it wasn’t enough. That really spoke to the addictive quality and pathology where we can’t stop, we won’t stop until we crash.”

Then there are the Siegels, featured in Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles,” who, years after the crash, return to resume their quest to build the biggest house of all in “Generation Wealth.”

“I thought the financial crash was going to teach us, that we had learned our lesson from that,” Greenfield says. “And yet a lot of people went right back to living the same way as they had before.”

It would all seem to precipitate the fall of the empire, as journalist Chris Hedges and others provide context to the grand bacchanalia at the end of American preeminence. Yet a 2013 Millennial Impact Report shows 73 percent of millennials volunteered for a cause they believe in and helped double the rate of volunteering in the U.S. from 1989 to 2005 among 16- to 24-year-olds. The same report indicates their low rate of disposable income and rejection of materialism undermines the very basis of capitalism, and they generally hold a leery view of government as a solution to anything.

“We see the children, in a way, being the redemption of the parents,” suggests Greenfield. “Like the millennials, hopefully there is some possibility of getting out of that cycle of addiction and having agency.”