Rating: 3 stars
Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has made a career out of documenting the culture of conspicuous consumption and the commodification of all things — including the human body. In her 2006 feature documentary debut, “Thin,” about women with eating disorders, and the 2012 “The Queen of Versailles,” about a wealthy couple’s attempt to build a house in Florida modeled after the French royal palace, Greenfield has turned her camera on an America obsessed with the superficial.
It’s an obsession that has fascinated her for 25 years, ever since Greenfield found the first expression of her artistic voice in photographs of teenagers in Los Angeles, a project that would go on to become the acclaimed and disturbing 1997 book “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.”
Greenfield’s latest documentary, “Generation Wealth,” is both a continuation of that obsession and a reflection upon it. In a sense, the film is a kind of double portrait, one in which the Los Angeles-bred artist and armchair anthropologist sees herself reflected in the mirror of her work, along with her self-regarding subjects. Of the world of privilege and perverse values that she has come to examine so closely — in books, exhibitions and films that dissect unfettered capitalism and the craving for more — she describes herself as both “critic and participant.”
What’s missing from this self-examination is perspective.
Although “Generation Wealth” features Greenfield’s first-person narration, as well as interviews with her psychologist mother, Patricia Marks Greenfield, and home-movie-style footage of Greenfield with her sons and husband, the insights into Greenfield’s own psyche feel more scant and superficial than those she gleans from others. Meaty interviews with journalist Chris Hedges, for instance, lend the film needed context and a sense of intellectual detachment.
In one segment, Hedges opines that modern society’s lack of upward mobility — its class inelasticity — has made the outward appearance of wealth matter disproportionately more than ever. We desire $700 shoes, gilded bling and other trappings of the “haves,” because we want to disguise the fact that we are the have-nots.
Needless to say, Donald Trump appears in the film, if only in passing, about a half-hour in, when the businessman turned president’s role as an avatar of the American Dream — a self-made mogul, or so he would have us believe — is held up as an explanation of his political ascendancy. We voted for him, in other words, because we want to be him, or at least to believe the version of him we saw on “The Apprentice.” (“Generation Wealth” is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Interviews with the subjects, now 40-ish, of “Fast Forward,” paired with shots from the book of their former, less introspective adolescent selves, also add useful substance and poignant wisdom. Florian Homm, the wealthy German former hedge fund manager who went on the lam in 2007 after being charged with investment fraud by the U.S. government, appears in interviews, too. Homm comes across as unchastened, but at least more cautious about the empty promises of the prosperity gospel. “If you think that money will buy you anything and everything,” he says, “you’ve never, ever had money.”
Greenfield, for the most part, wisely leaves the preaching to others. If “Generation Wealth” has a message that empty acquisitiveness is bad, it delivers it, like the rest of her work, by showing, not telling.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains strong sexual content, nudity, disturbing images and drug material. 106 minutes.