Greenfield analyzes the new American Dream
Documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield spent her career attempting to understand America’s obsession with wealth and status. I was first introduced to Greenfield through her 2012 documentary “Queen of Versailles,” which followed the Siegel timeshare tycoon family attempting to build the largest home in America. The film turns into a riches to rags story as they ultimately face bankruptcy in the construction process. “Queen of Versailles” and other films of Greenfields, like “Thin,” which follows four teenagers and their battles with eating disorders, all share a common denominator: why do we as a society obsess over materialism or our outward display? Greenfield attempts to get to the root of that common thread and expose it in her 2018 documentary, “Generation Wealth.”
“Generation Wealth” introduces the viewer to an assortment of characters, all of whom share an obsession with wealth and status. We meet cigar-puffing Florian Homm, the German businessman and investment banker who frequently dodges the FBI on charges of fraud; a “Toddlers and Tiaras” star; adult film actress and ex-girlfriend of Charlie Sheen Kacey Jordan; Suzanne, the work-obsessed New York City hedge fund executive; and, of course, the many stiff faces of one-too-many plastic surgeries.
Throughout these narratives, Greenfield explores layering sectors that display America’s toxic materialism — its general obsession with wealth, the commodification of the female body, the lengths to which we go to gain and display our acquired wealth and more. Indeed, many of these interviewees have been interviewed by Greenfield for her earlier work, revisited for the sake of the documentary. The documentary is then almost 25 years in the making and an overarching collection of Greenfield’s work. Such a filmmaking feat is worthy of praise, and the longevity of the project further legitimizes its ideas.
The film argues that the American Dream has changed from a righteous desire to work hard and gain wealth to one of exuberance and aesthetic display. Wealth is therefore no longer simply capital gain but becomes the centerpiece of what gives our society and selves value. Our basic human psyche responded accordingly; our morals, values and behaviors altered.
The challenge of the various niches presented throughout the film, however, is the questionable ability to follow the thought process of the filmmaker. Greenfield balances on a fine line between the creatively explorative and far-fetched. There are times in which the viewer questions how the various interviews connect to the overall thesis of the documentary, and of which at times diminishes the film’s investigative power and credibility. One interviewee claims our American society is on the brink of collapse with its focus on wealth, similar to the fall of Ancient Rome. While not a completely ruled out theory, the sensationalism found in various points of the film makes the viewer scratch their head.
Yet the silver lining of the documentary falls in Greenfield’s autobiographical approach, which is an uncommon strategy in this type of film. She ties her family history into the context of the film, and interviews her sons and parents in the process. Yet even she herself is not exempt from analysis and even criticism. By the end of the film, she questions her obsession with her line of work and love for filmmaking. Her desire for more — making more films — mirrors the inherent qualities of the American desire for wealth and status. She, too, is part of this culture.
One scene is specifically powerful in this case. As Greenfield interviews her son on the idea of legacy, her husband takes the camera to film her and ask the same question. She stutters, attempts to grab the camera and is finally forced to answer the question. She is confronted with introspection and finding her place within her own anthropological study. Without such strategy, the extreme cases she presents would seem inapplicable to the average Joe. She brings herself back down to earth, reminding the viewer that no one is exempt from materialism. Not even the omnipotus, theoretically neutral filmmaker.
The film ends on a rather optimistic note. Each of the interview subjects forgoes their obsession with wealth, acknowledging the destruction it has caused them, and advocates for moral preservation of what really matters: love and the people we care about. Greenfield too recognizes that she continues to live in the materialist Los Angeles culture of which she criticizes. Nonetheless, culture can be changed and contextualized; knowing this seems to be the first step toward change. While seemingly lofty, a little cliché and a slight let down to the viewer at first watch, it’s obvious that the concluding sentiment has not been deeply embedded into our collective culture. This documentary would not exist if it had.
Written By: Caroline Rutten — firstname.lastname@example.org