‘Generation Wealth’ Documents the Corrupted American Dream and Our Obsession With Wealth

In the first few moments of “Generation Wealth,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges argues that the pyramids were built at the very time that Egypt began its decline. “That’s what always happens,” he says. “Societies always accrue their greatest wealth at the moment they face death.” And thus, alongside appropriately disturbing imagery, Emmy-winning director Lauren Greenfield begins her exploration of the growth of global materialism over the past 25 years and what that says about us as a culture.

“Generation Wealth” was the opening night film in the documentary program at Sundance 2018.  It began as a 504 page award-winning monograph before traveling word-wide as a full exhibition to numerous art museums. Entertainment Voice sat down with this accomplished photographer and filmmaker to discuss “Generation Wealth” and our increasing cultural desire for wealth, fame, and status at any cost.

“In my work in L.A. in the 90’s, I was looking at issues of materialism and celebrity and image. It wasn’t until the financial crash (in 2008) that I started to see connections and how they ended in a morality tale in a way with the crash.”

“I was looking back at my Dad’s time which was very defined by social mobility and “will you give your kids a better life.”  That meant there was a material aspect but it also valued hard work, discipline and frugality.”

“I wanted to understand how that changed now to all surface and none of the substance – kind of an American dream on steroids, defined by bullying and narcissism and celebrity. As I got into it, it was really about what gives us value in today’s culture.”

Greenfield takes on a broad subject with worldwide implications. The density of its stories and observations could require multiple viewings to get it all, but the basics are quickly understood. The main thrust of the film is accessible. At no time does the film feel like it has over-reached considering its hour and a half length. Greenfield had the advantage of drawing from her own extensive archive consisting of almost 500,000 photographs and hundreds of interviews to connect the dots.

“The people I focused on had to have narrative arcs. There are hundreds of people I have had to shoot over the years and with only some of them I have had longitudinal relationships. I wanted to get back to them but I wanted to tell the story of generational wealth.”

With this in mind, Greenfield zeroes in on a handful of main stories, peppering them with anecdotes exemplifying the excesses of wealth and those who desire wealth. Included is the story of Eden Wood, a 4 year old “Tots and Tiara” contestant whose family spent upwards of a $100,000 on her competitions. There is Suzanne, a hedge fund manager; Vabjor, Icelandic fisherman turned banker; a trio of former alumni of Greenfield’s high school who felt the whole world revolve around them in high school; and finally David and Jackie Siegel who, as also covered in Greenfield’s previous film “Queen of Versailles,” borrowed heavily to build the largest house in America.

A key subject throughout the documentary is former hedge fund manager Florian Homm. Homm is a complex character, open about his greed and admiration for Gordan Gecko, the ruthless corporate raider in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” and yet remorseful for where his own life has turned out. After the recession of 2008, he became a wanted man. He fled the U.S. only to do prison time in Germany.

“He became kind of a truth teller of how he went wrong and how we shouldn’t follow him. So his story was really powerful for me.”

Greenfield also interviewed his son and his girlfriend.

“For a lot of these characters, their kids are kind of their redemption. The son’s girlfriend was incredible because she had the reaction that the audience would have, like really? You took your son to a prostitute and you thought that was being a good dad? Really?”

One particularly troubling story with a very clear arc is that of Kasey Jordan, the porn star who came to fame partying with Charlie Sheen.

“I went after Dabny (Jordan) because I wanted to show the consequences of girls leveraging their bodies for fame and fortune. I photographed a lot of girls who felt very empowered by their ability to do that. From the strippers at Magic City to a prostitute at the Bunny ranch to teenagers who post sexy pictures of themselves on Instagram. I needed to show the cost a little further down the road when you leverage your body, and to me, Kasey/Dabny told that story. She starts loving her job, having gotten out of being poor and being able to live this glamorous lifestyle and be with celebrities like Charlie Sheen. She has this terrible fall and there are some terrible scenes but I thought it was important to show the cost of the pornification of our culture.”

“I asked my son when he was exposed to pornography and he said 6th grade. He grew up in a feminist household where we are very conscious about media, and I can’t protect him from that. I think it’s really impossible to prevent that exposure.”

Greenfield as a documentarian tends not to shy away from hard questions. Her film reflects her own integrity. Part of that was her decision to put her own family in front of the camera, which, like the discussion with her son about pornography, led to moments that were powerfully cathartic.

“It began by interviewing my parents and children as representatives of their generation. It ended up including the personal parts. What kind of bubbled up felt relevant to the interviews with Florian and some of the others where Florian said that work was an addiction. How can a hundred hour workweek not have a cost on everything you hold dear? I felt I had to be honest about my own choices.”

And that honesty led to a confrontation with her mother.

“ I wanted to look at why I was obsessed and on a sort of irrational journey. So I started that very healing conversation with my mother when she said ‘better now than at my funeral.’ And like my son Noah who gives me a hard time, both of our relationships have gotten better as a result.”

In a film of this kind, it is hard not to be didactic, but Greenfield avoids that by concentrating on the humanity of her subjects. Produced by Greenfield’s husband Frank Evers, “Generation Wealth” is both a warning as well as an invitation for self-examination. It’s a challenge to step back and take stock of what we value and what it says about us.

“I definitely do feel we are not on a sustainable path. I also feel hopeful. I feel the third act is all about awakening and seeing the matrix we’re in. Even though they lived these lives according to the values of greed and vanity, they have insights that this is not what really matters. But we are at risk.”

Generation Wealth” opens July 20 in theaters.