The contradictions of Lauren Greenfields’s childhood in Santa Monica and Venice planted the seeds for “Generation Wealth,” an indictment of society’s sick obsession with being rich and famous
By Angela Matano
Watching longtime Venice resident Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about obscenely rich people, I couldn’t stop thinking of how detached money has become from work. The notion of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to achieve the American Dream, perhaps never really true, seems to get more and more abstract as we move deeper into the 21st century. Instead, a life of fame and fortune has taken hold of the popular imagination.
Greenfield, whose film “Generation Wealth” opens this week, grew up comfortably middle-class (her dad was a doctor) in the pre-gentrification grunge of 1970s Venice and came of age in the “greed is good” ’80s. Attending Crossroads School in Santa Monica among children of the rich and famous, she realized early on the chasm between her classmates’ decadent lives and her more humble upbringing.
“Venice was not a place where people raised kids. It was a place of crime and drugs and gangs. Some of my friends weren’t even allowed to stay over at my house,” Greenfield recalls.
That said, she remembers the good things — particularly, a strong sense of community — that pervaded Venice’s ethos. Unlike ritzier neighborhoods where people hid behind fences and hedges, Venetians played outside and got to know one another. For Greenfield’s parents, living in Venice was a political act. They hoped the balance of Crossroads academic excellence and growing up among a diversity of backgrounds and income levels would be a positive influence.
This dichotomy of living in one city and attending a private school in an entirely different one turned Greenfield into a de facto cultural anthropologist. At a young age, she started using photography to document the decadent shenanigans of fellow students. The insider/outsider status of being only middle-class and going home to shabby Venice opened her eyes to the abnormality of a high school culture on the brink of Pleasure Island — from drug abuse to body dysmorphia to the overabundance of just about everything. After graduating from Harvard, she found herself back in L.A. photographing youthful excess — work that eventually culminated in the 1997 book “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.”
Documenting a world of riches initially felt prurient, and Greenfield questioned the value of her work until something unexpected happened: the mainstreaming of society’s obsession with luxury. She soon turned to documentary filmmaking, The 2006 HBO anorexia documentary “Thin” and the lauded “Queen of Versailles,” about a family “struggling” to build the largest house in the United States amidst the economic crisis of 2008.
For “Generation Wealth” she delves into society’s obsession with and compulsion for accumulating excessive wealth, braiding together a myriad of narratives united by the theme of excess. Cathy, a 31-year-old bus driver and single mom, careens toward self-destruction as she spends every last dime on plastic surgery. Florian, a 55-year-old former hedge fund manager, hides out in Germany to avoid extradition on charges he defrauded investors.
But “It’s not just about the 1%,” says Greenfield. “How the 1% affects the 99% is what we have to talk about: The images of wealth and luxury so dominant in media, and how comparison creates desire. It’s so high school.”
Revisiting some of her earlier work, a former Crossroads classmate reflects on growing up the neglected child of a rock star and now distances himself from that lifestyle, but the couple from “Queen of Versailles” sees no harm in continuing to revel in their abundance.
“It’s been cathartic. ‘Generation Wealth’ is a more mature, parental point of view, rather than being judgmental — we’re all complicit,” she says. “At school I didn’t fit in and I documented that anxiety, but now I document with a more critical eye.”
In fact, Greenfield’s role in the movie grew as she realized how the disparate elements of excess weaved together through her, that she was the connective tissue. The filmmaker related to the characters’ hunger for a steady stream of more — more money, more beauty, more fame — while Greenfield’s own “more” was work-related, yet still rooted in the siren song of excess.
“I was always going to be the narrator, but then I realized I had my own journey, too,” she says. “It was time to be honest with myself. I could identify with the desire. The desire was human nature.”
After watching the film, it’s hard not to wonder if we’re doomed, on a trajectory toward total Roman debauchery. But it can’t all be lost, can it? When Greenfield began editing “Generation Wealth,” before President Trump was elected, she envisioned a much darker ending, but the election validated her worst fears, causing her to pivot her thinking in a more hopeful direction.
“Yes, we’re zooming toward the apocalypse,” she says, “but there’s a chance for change.”
For one, Crossroads — where her sons now attend school — has evolved quite a bit, Greenfield says: “It’s not as Hollywood as it used to be. It’s more conscious of the influences I have documented. It now gives kids a more critical eye.”
And Venice? Though it has been transformed by an infusion of wealth, she still believes in her community.
“Something’s been lost in diversity, but it’s still a place where people know their neighbors,” she says. “Everybody feels that Venice is theirs.”
Lauren Greenfield appears in person for Q&As after screenings of “Generation Wealth” at 2:10 and 5 p.m. Sunday (July 22) at The Landmark in Westside Pavilion. Tickets are $11.50 to $15 at landmarktheatres.com.