Lauren Greenfield first struck upon the narrative within Generation Wealth while working on a film called The Queen of Versailles, which followed the story of a billionaire family who were trying to build the largest house in America. When the global financial crash of 2008 took place, it dramatically intruded on their story.
“They end up having a super-sized foreclosure story,” says Greenfield. “They’re over-leveraged like everybody else. So in a way they were this allegory that represented what I had seen in so many places, from suburban California to Ireland to Iceland to Dubai, and spoke to the kind of flaws that got us there, in a very global way. Seeing very similar kinds of imagery, and similar kinds of consequences in so many places throughout the world – and also from different socio-economic groups – made me think that all of these stories were somehow connected and the crash turned them into a morality tale.”
Appropriately, Generation Wealth is itself an outsized tome, running to over 600 pages and featuring imagery going back over 25 years to the 1990s. It examines various themes, from how advertising has combined with the breakdown of community to create an addiction to goods and luxury, to the notion that even before you might become wealthy, it is now acceptable to pretend you are, to ‘fake it ’til you make it’.
The 90s images feature a 12 year-old Kim Kardashian as well other wealthy kids in LA who at the time the shots were taken seemed outlandishly privileged. “I made a picture of these two girls in a limousine eating pizza going to a concert,” says Greenfield. “It was a very provocative picture at the time, people were uncomfortable with that kind of excess.” Looking at the photograph through today’s eyes though, and especially alongside what comes later in the book, the girls’ behaviour seems impossibly tame, innocent even.
For over the next two decades comes extraordinary levels of extravagance, ranging from the comedic – a 24k solid gold toilet – to the disturbing. There are graphic scenes of plastic surgery as well as luxury living on a colossal scale. As a reader, diving into the book is initially a salacious, voyeuristic experience, especially as Greenfield accompanies the images with interviews with the protagonists, who recount fascinating and emotionally candid tales of excessive, extreme lives.
It might be easy to think that the subjects featured bear no relation to life outside the super-rich bubble, but over the course of the book, Greenfield forces the reader to examine their own place within this new cultural order. For it is her belief that we are all affected by it, no matter how different our lives may seem.
“I feel like it affects everybody, because part of the process that I’m documenting is how when you see it, you’re changed by it,” she says. “Part of it is about the exposure from the media – how that takes away our innocence, how it makes us want certain things, how that breeds desire, how that impacts our perceptions of the world. One of the things that I was interested in was the research that shows that affluent lifestyles have been increasing in the media since the 70s, and that seeing those images makes you think other people have more than they actually do and also stimulates desire. I think that exposure is everywhere.”
Greenfield examines her own history within the context of the wider story in Generation Wealth in the book’s introduction, and is quick to acknowledge how this drew her to the subject in the first place. “I’m always drawn to stories that affect me,” she says. “My parents were always very anti-materialistic and then when I was in 11th grade I went to a private school where kids had a lot of designer clothes and cars and I wanted that stuff to fit in. So that contradiction between what I wanted and what I thought I needed to fit in and what my parents said was right and what they were also willing to let me do … I think that was a source of inspiration, wanting to go back and look at that.”
When 2008 brought international financial disaster, like many, Greenfield thought that the consumerist juggernaut would change course. But, as the book amply documents, and as we all know, this was far from the case, even though it did give some of the characters featured in Generation Wealth a moment of pause and reflection.
“It’s a dark story,” she continues. “I think it’s about conflating entertainment with reality, and how we’ve been overtaken by the values of materialism. How both that addiction to consumer culture but also other aspects of modern life that I documented have created a loneliness and emptiness that we try to fill with things. I think the book is dark but on the other hand, there’s also hope from the moments of insight from the characters. The crash was a crisis that also created moments of insight both for the characters and for me in terms of being this time of creative disruption.”
After the crash though, the renewal has, for some, brought even more rabid consumerism than before, and Greenfield – while being as surprised as others when it came to pass – now sees how even Trump’s election as President plays into the patterns of behaviour examined in the book.
“When you look back it’s like a straight line,” she says. “The campaign was the last year of working on the book, and I thought the campaign and his success on the campaign shows how important these forces are, but I actually did not think he would win. But then when he did it was almost like proof of concept that this is where we were.
“[He represents] the expression of all the values that I’d looked at, even as superficial as the love for gold and the aesthetic of luxury. And having beauty pageants, trafficking beautiful women, having women to be an expression of success … real estate as the central money maker … debt and bankruptcy … moral bankruptcy … fake it ‘til you make it – so many of the ideas. But maybe it will be like the crash – maybe it takes crisis to make change.”
While Greenfield is critical of how aspects of modern life – for example, advertising – have played into our collapse into materialism, she doesn’t shy away from engaging with the ad world, in fact is actively interested in exploring the tension that might arise. “I am all about speaking on the broadest platforms to the most amount of people,” she says. “I don’t have an issue for working with brands in the sense that as long as I can do something that I can stand behind and it has integrity, for me it’s not that different than working for a magazine where there’s an ad next to it.
“Of course, it’s still important to me to make a book where I have complete control and do a movie where I have final cut so that I can be absolutely responsible in the realm of my personal work for what I’m saying. But I’m also all for collaborating with like-minded people who have a big platform and what I have seen in this work is the huge and often negative power of advertising so I think there’s huge potential in harnessing that power for positive change.”
An example of this positive change can of course be seen in the success of Like A Girl, which has had millions of views online, and could genuinely be said to have affected our wider culture. “I think it definitely showed me the power of an idea and the way you can reach people on that platform in that small, two-minute format,” says Greenfield of the spot. “I spent four years putting this together and worked on it for 25 years but the people that are going to buy a 500-page book and read it is not as broad an audience as something like Like A Girl, so I like doing both.”
As well as in book form, Generation Wealth is currently showing at the Annenberg Space for Photography in LA and will move to the ICP in New York in September. Many of Greenfield’s subjects came to the LA opening and, according to the photographer, had mixed reactions to seeing themselves on the walls of the space. “There were a lot of the subjects who came to the opening in LA a few weeks ago and it was amazing,” she says. “There was one woman, Tiffany Masters, who is a VIP hostess in Las Vegas, who started to cry. In her interview, she said she told her mum that she was going to walk the red carpet and have champagne with superstars and then she said ‘watch what you wish for’ – and she started to cry.
“There was a girl, Kacey Jordan, who is a porn star that went on a bender with Charlie Sheen and she got emotional too,” Greenfield continues, “but she was also pretty excited to be there, like it was somehow validating for her story.”
As to where all this consumption and search for affluence will ultimately lead us, for Greenfield the outlook is bleak. But, she says, this just increases the need for us to examine the topic.
“I think we are doomed if we stay on this path,” she says. “I don’t think this is a sustainable path. And the reason I put it all together, and spent four years doing it, is I do feel like there are moments of insight in the book, by the characters – moments like the crash, where we can see the hamster wheel that we’re in and say we don’t want to do that. I believe in that possibility.”
Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield is published by Phaidon, priced £59.95; phaidon.com