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Film Review: Generation Wealth

15 August 18 words: Natalie Mills

Watch the new American Dream crash and burn through the lens of photographer Lauren Greenfield

Director: Lauren Greenfield

Running time: 106 mins

Newsflash: money doesn’t make you happy! Generation Wealth is a sickening but ultimately hopeful exploration of self-obsession. Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield takes us on a dizzying journey spanning over 25 years. The film follows multiple people and their relationship with wealth – not just money, but “whatever gives you value”. Lauren focuses her lens on the greed of the insanely rich, but also on plastic surgery, beauty pageants and porn. It’s the full-yet-empty world of the Kardashians and Trump.

The film’s opening lulls you into thinking it will be an extended ‘sensitive freak show’ documentary. We’re bombarded with various groups, families and individuals who are crazy about money. Gaudy houses, strippers, giant cigars, the works. A mother beams as her daughter – a child beauty pageant contestant – exclaims she would love a huge pile of money to kiss. Minutes in and I hated everyone already. “Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment that they face death,” muses journalist Chris Hedges. His brief sessions offer some historical context, trying to explain how we came to this e.g. the loss of the gold standard.

Although distinctly focussed on the USA, the culture of excess is a global phenomenon. The film intersperses footage from China, Iceland and Russia – where War and Peace-style balls flourish, attended by celebrities and daughters of oligarchs. Greenfield also turns the lens on herself, questioning her own obsessions.

Generation Wealth is deeply personal to its director, and you learn a lot about her career and family life. If you love photography, this film is great eye-candy – Lauren’s thousands-strong archive of images is reminiscent of Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past. She’s been documenting wealth since her teens, and it’s affecting to see real people rise and fall. However, with several life stories covered, you’re left wanting more focus.

Generation Wealthis an admirable labour of love, but it lacks an overarching conclusion

Alongside revisiting the privileged kids she photographed, Lauren also interviews people like Florian Homm. A former investment banker, he responds to “Does Harvard Business School teach you how to be a good person?” with a fantastic Bond-villain laugh. He is later imprisoned for fraud, and seems to realise the error of his ways. “It’s a long trip to come back to what matters, the other stuff is a delusion,” Florian concludes sadly. We also meet Suzanne, an icy hedge-fund manager, who goes from 100-hour working weeks to trying motherhood in her 40s. “A lot less art, a lot more ballet,” she explains, hinting that her obsession has merely transformed. They’re fascinating characters who probably deserve their own documentaries.

Porn star Kacey Jordan highlights the human cost of obscene wealth – and the objectification of women that often accompanies it. We see her remodel the childlike body that made her rich and famous, eventually finding peace away from the spotlight. Some of the most upsetting scenes involve Cathy, who flies to Brazil for extensive plastic surgery with no general anaesthetic. Whether it’s using sex “as an extension of commerce” or trying to achieve the new American Dream of “being in the best body”, their stories are tragic.

Generation Wealthis an admirable labour of love, but it lacks an overarching conclusion. It needs less of Lauren’s life story and more cerebral, capitalism-bashing interludes from activist Hedges. “This time when we go down, the whole planet’s gonna go down with us,” – but at least we kept up the Kardashians.

Did you know? Lauren has created four other documentaries including THIN, kids + money, Beauty CULTureand The Queen of Versailles. They all deal with the themes of human obsession and excess.

Generation Wealth is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 16 August

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