Lauren Greenfield has made a career doing in depth films about superficial people. Movies like “kids + money” and “The Queen of Versailles” examine the relationship between wealth, excess and humanity. Her latest, “Generation Wealth,” begins as a look at the lifestyles of the rich and (not so) famous in Los Angeles but blossoms outward to become an international study of the price of greed.
The documentary almost plays like a career retrospective, blending her own experiences as an artist covering the American Dream with the price she has paid as a parent. “I am in constant motion and I live with the consequences,” she says, “but it’s also one of the things I love. It gives my life meaning.”
Interspersed with her personal story is a blend of archival material form her earlier films and follow-up interviews with her subjects. We meet the son of a rock star whose outlook on life was shaped by the idea he’d never be as successful as his dad. There’s Florian Homm, a former hedge funder, now on the run from the FBI, who describes his former existence as “a hamster in a diamond studded gold wheel,” while sucking on a fat cigar. Notorious Charlie Sheen playmate and porn star Kacey Jordan is a poignant reminder of the downside of a life spent becoming a human commodity.
Early on interesting points are poised as to how and why we’ve become so greedy. One commenter suggests that mass media and TV are a form of violence. “Twenty four hours a day,” he says, “this fictitious lifestyle, which we’re all told we can have, fuels a sense of inadequacy.” People used to aspire to be like their neighbours and wanted just a bit more than they had. Now they want more than the Kardashians. When they can’t live up to that ideal, he continues, “the only social mobility you have is fictitious. The presentation that you give to the rest of the world denies your own reality.”
Plastic surgery, status and social mobility are essayed in an increasingly scattershot way. It’s a sprawling work, occasionally too sprawling. Greenfield aims to contextualize the effects of unbridled greed in the world but rarely effectively gets deep into the macro. The movie works best when the stories she tells are smaller, more personal. Jordan’s life, for example, is a cautionary tale that effectively puts a human face on the very points about materialism and hubris that Greenfield wants to shine a spotlight on.
“Generation Wealth” has much to say but, by the time the credits roll, can be summed up with a quote from Homm. “If you think money will buy you anything or everything, you’ve never ever had money. You can’t buy the smile on your child’s face.” Greenfield wants us to know that greed, despite what Gordon Gekko so famously said, is not good.