Materialism is bad and money can’t buy happiness. That’s essentially the message of “Generation Wealth,” and if it’s hard to disagree with the thrust of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary, it also becomes questionable when she pivots from that major theme to question the relative value of any interest which might play a major role in a person’s life, perhaps to the point of becoming an obsession. When she turns to examining her own past choices, one might be tempted to say: yes, perhaps your drive to document the phenomena you find so intriguing has led you to spend less time with your two charming sons than you might have done, but are you suggesting that the world would be a better place if the many great artists, thinkers, composers and writers who did, in fact, neglect their families had made time for breakfast and playtimes with the kids to the detriment of their work?
That’s a thorny issue, but so long as Greenfield sticks to showing the absurdity of people’s single-minded lust for monetary success, celebrity and possessions, you can certainly go along with her point. It’s one that she’s made before, of course, perhaps most notably in her previous film “The Queen of Versailles,” about David and Jacqueline Siegel, a Florida couple whose tasteless effort to build a monstrous mansion patterned after Louis XIV’s royal estate came crashing down after the 2008 economic collapse. For Greenfield the episode represented the grotesque perversion of the American Dream, not because it ended in financial ruin but because of the spirit of mindless acquisitiveness and ostentation that drove it in the first place.
The Siegels reappear briefly here as part of the warning against the profligate materialism they represented in the earlier picture, and so do others whom Greenfield has used as subjects in the past. She revisits, for example, some of the rich young people whom she photographed living heedless lives two decades ago for her 1997 book “Fast Forward,” and not surprisingly, finds that the opulence they flaunted them hardly guaranteed them success or happiness. Some have emerged “in a better place,” psychologically, but learning hard lessons is still painful to look back on.
And there are new examples brought forward to amplify the message. Many are women: one who becomes so obsessed with the potential of plastic surgery that she spends everything she has, and virtually ignores her own daughter, on treatment, or another who devotes herself completely to her Wall Street job until she realizes that the biological clock is running out on having a child of her own, and a third whose career in the adult film world brought notoriety rather than fame (and whose story leads to a more generalized observation on the objectification of women in the sex industry).
But there is also Florian Homm, a German wheeler-dealer who made a fortune before being charged with crimes against the rules of financial regulation that led him to go into hiding before he was identified and brought to trial. He now expounds profusely on the error of his ways, even talking about how he once procured the services of a hooker for his inexperienced teen son—a reminiscence made more pointed by Greenfield’s juxtaposition of it with footage of the now-grown son wincing at the memory as his girlfriend looks on.
Greenfield adds chapters of wider scope, such as that dealing with Iceland’s economic collapse, brought about by corrupt banking processes not unlike the shady practices of American institutions in the housing bubble of the early 2000s. But even here the story is given a personal spin through the voice of a fisherman lured into banking by the prospect of big bucks, only to return to the sea chastened after the banks went under and his job disappeared. Segments also touch on the process of globalization of the materialist impulse in post-Soviet Russia and post-Mao China.
All of this material makes the intended point, and sometimes—not always, as it’s hard to empathize with people like the Siegels or Homm, whose business practices seem dodgy from the get-go—it elicits a feeling a sympathy for the misguided souls enticed by the prospect of money and fame beyond their wildest dreams (or needs). When those dreams turn into nightmares, it’s difficult not to feel sorry for those who suffer the effects, however silly one might think their actions.
When Greenfield turns the camera on herself and her family, however, she seems to be straining after a degree of self-understanding that fits uneasily with her thesis about materialism. She certainly shows a great deal of affection for her husband, and for her sons, who admit that her absences on photographic work were at times hard to take, but appear to have grown up as bright, well-adjusted and generally happy anyway. And when she interviews her parents, who in the pattern of the time encouraged their daughter to strive for the best, the result comes off even more uncertain, even a tad cruel. That’s especially the case when she puts her mother on the spot about her devotion to anthropological work, which often took her on extended expeditions to exotic locales. (As home movies show, Lauren sometimes accompanied her, which helped stimulate her career as a documentarian.) The implication of generational blame here seems a stretch, particularly if one applies it more broadly to those of the most extraordinary levels of talent and accomplishment.
So Greenfield’s depiction of the uber-materialism of today’s world is compelling, if rather obvious, but her attempt to extrapolate from that portrait of unfettered excess to a broader thesis about responsibility to family feels simplistic.