Lauren Greenfield‘s Generation Wealth has been a labor of love for 25 years. Greenfield’s immaculate filmography includes Thin, Magic City, and The Queen of Versailles. Generation Wealth, unfortunately, is not among the same quality.
Greenfield’s film is all over the place, and is more stream of consciousness than informative or even entertaining. She posits that from her childhood living in Venice Beach, during the 80’s, to now, there’s been a decline in the American Empire. This decline is predicated upon America’s lust for greed, whether through borrowing what we cannot afford or through pining for the fairy tale pop-culture images on cable television. If Generation Wealth feels 8 years too late to be relevant, then you’re probably right.
Some of the film’s success rests upon how much you believe its premise. That is, that since the 80’s we’ve seen the decline of the American Empire. We’ve built a bent house of cards and we’re using fat diamond covered fingers to hold it up.
I don’t buy this outlook; so admittedly, the film lost me there. To me, Generation Wealth is another diatribe of pearl clutching. It’s another mourning for something lost that probably never existed. That is, an American dream that’s a fairy tale. Yes, we’re dependent upon wealth, status, greed, and sex. We want to live the celebrity lifestyle. But is this outlook any different from those living in the 1920’s?
That generation, the Jazz age, could have also been accused of hedonism and pornography. The same people who witnessed the rise of the gangster, the men who rose themselves up through murder and greed, only to become celebrities. Or how about the gratuitous violence in boxing, that era’s most popular form of entertainment? And weren’t these the same people who led the country into the Great Depression? Also, the Great Depression wasn’t just an American phenomenon. It was nearly a worldwide decline in wealth made possible by people who over borrowed on credit.
Instead, Generation Wealth and its creator are too busy making the tired argument of “kids these days.” That makes the film wholly unoriginal in its premise and 20 years too late to make a “boo pop culture” claim and 8 years behind for examining the “Great Recession.” Regardless, Generation Wealth could have also done with another Academic talking head to give Greenfield’s premise greater weight. Because while she interviews subjects, such as Limo Bob, Florian Homm, and Tiffany Masters, there’s only one academic.
On the other hand, whether you ascribe to the above argument is secondary to the documentary’s listlessness. Most documentaries say something deeper about the documentarian. Greenfield spends the last third of Generation Wealth self-diagnosing not only her relationship to her mother, but also her kids to her and her subjects’ parental bonds. The documentary becomes only tangentially about wealth in these sequences. It’s a bridge too far, and Greenfield loses us on the craggy rocks below. That is, Generation Wealth becomes an aimless and meandering expedition of relationships we care little about.
Instead, I wanted to know more about these subjects. Their profiles in opulence is the draw here, not the workings of a workaholic photographer’s family life in relation to wealth (in which they have very little in common). I came for the grimey disgusting wealth, not puritan hand-wringing. Because while I do understand the heresy of greed, I, like most others, am secretly entertained by it. And while most documentaries cater to academics, Generation Wealth is too often done from an academic echo chamber, thus causing the drive of the film to spiral quicker than its subjects’ greed.