“Mo Money Mo Problems” said it best with, “The more money we come across, the more problems we see.” The song’s musical prophesy is reflected well within Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, based on her 2017 photo exhibition and book Generation Wealth. The exhibition was 25 years of photos taken by Greenfield from the 90s to the present which reflected on how people, predominately Americans, view wealth and luxury in their society. The documentary expands upon Greenfield’s photos in sometimes unnecessary and meandering ways, but mostly in some truly powerful and revelatory moments.
The documentary goes several directions but the most effective are when Greenfield shows photos she took in the early 90s of high school age Gen X-ers from her wealthy alma mater, the tiny Santa Monica-based Crossroads School. The audience gets to see these photos and then meet these same figures of privilege all grown up. Some are eye-rollingly unchanged and woefully lacking in self-awareness, while a few have learned some valuable lessons what’s truly important in their lives. Others that were photographed are a pre-teen Kim Kardashian and Kate Hudson (most viewers know what happened to them).
Greenfield is known best for her fascinating and jaw-dropping documentary ode to uber-wealth The Queen of Versailles. David and Jackie Siegel make a couple of appearances in this documentary as well, most winkingly as they sit in the background of a Trump rally and pretty much represent those Wealth obsessed who’ve seemingly learned nothing over time.
There are some interesting reflections on America’s wealth culture, especially one moment where someone reflects that more people are so attached to images of wealth on TV that they could tell you all the names of the Kardashians but not the names of their neighbors. That’s a sobering moment that probably hits home for a lot of the viewers of this documentary, even the ones who consider themselves more grounded than many of the film’s subjects. Of course, this film judges Baby Boomers, but it also looks at the problematic choices made by Gen Xers and how that’s trickled down to Millennials. Everyone is a bit to blame and that push for accountability for all generations is refreshing.
Lauren Greenfield herself takes her documentary on a turn when she essentially asks herself if she’s no better than her extravagant subjects, just that she’s work obsessed rather than money obsessed. Many documentaries falter and fail when the filmmaker gets personal, but these moments enrich the film, because Greenfield has spent half her life chasing this project. The film starts to become less judging those who grasp at fame and fortune, and more about offering a potential solution to the wealth delusion. Without spoiling anything, the answers seem to be in passing down things to one’s children that money can’t buy or replace, which is love and attention.
It seems so simple, but Greenfield lays it out within her own life and the lives of a few of her sobered subjects in a really delicate way. Generation Wealth soars when it stops being an indictment of our frivolous times and more about repairing and healing relationships with others and ourselves. There’s a rule in memoir writing that the author should be the hardest judge on themselves. Generation Wealth is a bit about money’s impact on Generation X and their offspring, but it resonates thanks to a more micro, intimate examination of our culture.