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Generation Wealth, Lauren Greenfield’s titillating survey of America’s grossest obsessions, only flirts with economic and social context.

Elevation

  • Generation Wealth
  • Written and directed by: Lauren Greenfield
  • Classification: 14A; 106 minutes

rating

In her new film Generation Wealth, photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield interviews a critic of capitalism who compares the U.S. to ancient Rome, but warns that this empire will take the world down with it when it falls. If there’s hard evidence for that apocalyptic view of American geopolitics, this film might have included more of it.

Greenfield’s titillating survey of America’s grossest obsessions, from plastic surgery to porn, only flirts with economic and social context, mainly limiting itself to observation and personalization. Greenfield tells us she charts the extremes to understand the mainstream, but glimpses of an explanation for the insanities and obscenities depicted in Generation Wealth are frustratingly few.

Greenfield began her career as a still photographer, initially shooting the privileged teenagers who she grew up with in L.A., but is now probably best-known for her last, shocking film, The Queen of Versailles, about a couple building the biggest house in America. The queen herself (who reappears in Generation Wealth) is Jacqueline Siegel, the trophy wife of a time-share billionaire whose fortunes collapsed in the 2008 real estate crash. Following that film’s exposé of the bloat and eventual implosion of the American dream, this new film is a personal project and a career retrospective for Greenfield after she recognized that all of her work deals with wealth in some form.

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Here, she returns to those pampered and posturing L.A. teens to find a few unrepentant jerks, but also many older and wiser people leading more balanced lives. On the other hand, another subject, a bus driver who had her entire body made over by a plastic surgeon in Brazil, is now broke and living in her car while her parents take care of her children.

Chris Hedges, a journalist, clergyman and that apocalyptic critic of capitalism, suggests America’s pursuit of extreme wealth dates to the 1970s and the decision to drop the gold standard, thereby enshrining a psychology of living on debt unanchored to real assets. Television exacerbated the problem because, as several observers remark, people no longer keep up with the Joneses but with the Kardashians.

Another surprisingly reflective voice is that of Florian Homm, the fugitive investment banker who eventually served a jail sentence for fraud in the U.S. and now lives in Germany. He offers his own life story as an object lesson in what money can’t buy: on holiday in a French port and surrounded by luxury yachts for sale, he told his wife to take her pick, but all she wanted was that he turn off his phone so for once they could have a quiet dinner.

Still, his American son and the son’s girlfriend, also interviewed here, wonder if Homm is repentant or merely regretful. Many of Greenfield’s subjects simply replace one pathology with another. One Wall Street workaholic, a woman who Greenfield first discovered because she spent more on personal care than anyone else the filmmaker interviewed for a film about body image, has cut back on her 100-hour work-weeks. Now she is making some time to raise a child after an equally manic quest to get pregnant in middle age.

The theme of working mothers runs throughout Generation Wealth as Greenfield considers both her mother’s absence from her childhood and her own repeated separations from her young children as her camera took her around the world. She may not wish to appear judgmental of her subjects’ obsessions while letting herself off the hook, but in both generations of the Greenfield family committed fathers seem to have filled in any gaps. The filmmaker’s anxiety on this score feels more like a tangent than a strong motivation for her studies of wealth: the big social picture, rather than the small personal one, would have done much to deepen her film.

In the end, everybody knows what is wrong here and how to fix it. A sympathetic Icelandic fisherman explains how the hot banking job that he took during the boom evaporated overnight. Today, he’s happily back on his boat.

Generation Wealth opens July 27 in Toronto and Vancouver

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