Photographer and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has made a career of chronicling excess, from glamorous youth in Los Angeles who grew up privileged as children of celebrities, to the desperate-to-be-skinny women receiving treatment for anorexia at an inpatient clinic in Coconut Creek, Florida. Her career kicked off about 20 years ago in Los Angeles after the publication of her first photography book, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, but she says Miami could have easily been a backdrop had she encountered the city at the right moment.
“I love Miami,” Greenfield says over the phone, “and I love working there... I’ve always felt, if I started ten years later, I would have started in Miami... I did a photo shoot [in 2003] with Tyra Banks there where we shot the idea of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Her new documentary, Generation Wealth, which comes a year after Phaidon Press released her career-spanning book Lauren Greenfield: Generation Wealth, stands as both a retrospective of her work as well as a reckoning with the state of our consumerist and social media culture. To Greenfield, we might as well be living in modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.
“We kind of see in this film how wealth culture creates addiction, and everybody is aspiring to wealth,” she says. “The movie is really not about money itself but really how everybody is aspiring for more and aspiring to be other than they are, and it doesn’t matter how much you have.”
In 2012, her documentary The Queen of Versailles won the U.S. Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered. The subject was the quest by multimillionaire Florida businessman David Siegel and his wife Jackie Siegel, Mrs. Florida 1993, to build their dream home near Orlando. It was to be a replica of the Palace of Versailles. However, the U.S. housing crisis was in full swing, and the project nearly bankrupted them. Jackie Siegel makes an appearance in Generation Wealth, showing that she and her husband stand as examples that more can never be enough. “You can have, like the Siegels, a 26,000-square-foot house and want a bigger one,” Greenfield notes.
She says though the film seems to be about people's desire for wealth — be it those who want it or those who can’t get enough of it — it’s really about the idea of addiction. Queen of Versailles ultimately showed her subjects finding their own idea of self-worth in the face of this failed project. However, since the crash of the real-estate market that put the project on hold, David Siegel has returned to try to finish the job. Greenfield compares it to the myth of Sisyphus, which has echoes in her current documentary. “It’s like relapse in the addiction model,” she says of Siegel’s efforts, “so I’m less interested in if they ever finish than why they continue, especially now that some of the kids are out of the house. A lot of the kids will be gone by the time they do finish... if they ever do.”
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As Generation Wealth also doubles as a retrospective of her career, Greenfield doesn’t let herself off the hook. Her own drive for work has negatively affected her family life in the time she has spent away from her husband and two sons. “I find out, through prompting of one of the characters, that my relationship to my work is also addictive and kind of look into, in a way, how that's similar to other characters and how I’m also kind of looking for more, but in my work. And so I look at the consequences for that, but for my family. But on the positive side, it’s also what gives my life meaning at the end... to try to have that balance.”
Asked how she has fared in achieving that balance, she laughs. It's been two years since she shot scenes that include one of her sons telling her that all of her filming and questioning of him from behind a camera lens has probably damaged him. But she says she's trying to be conscious of the effects her work has on her children. In the wider sense, Greenfield tangles with the double meaning of her work: beautiful luxury and how it tempts and sometimes destroys people.
“I agree that the exposure has this destructive effect,” the filmmaker says. “Actually, that’s what the research shows: The more that we see images of luxury, the more we want those things, and I think that’s why we’ve gone from keeping up with the Joneses to Keeping Up With the Kardashians. But I think it’s really important to show it in a critical context. I don’t think that you could see this film and come out thinking that money is going to be a good goal or that you can buy happiness. I think the point of this work is really to deconstruct the culture, to be able to look at what affects us on a daily basis and pull back the matrix that we’re living in so we can see it more clearly and have agency to make different choices.”
Generation Wealth. Opens Friday, August 3, at Regal South Beach Stadium 18 (1120 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 844-462-7342; regmovies.com), AMC Aventura 24 (19501 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura; 305-466-9880; amctheatres.com), and AMC Sunset Place 24 (5701 Sunset Dr., South Miami; 305-740-8904; amctheatres.com).