If you just can’t get enough of gold-plated toilet seats, garish mansions, stretch limos with hot tubs and even a helipad, and Wall Street guys lighting cigars with $100 bills, you’ll probably want to give the new documentary “Generation Wealth” a look: these are just a few of the conspicuous-consumption visuals on display in this film. Of course, if that kind of thing makes your blood boil like it does mine, you still should have a look. This is ostensibly a cautionary tale about America being the latest example of how, like the Roman Empire, “a society accrues its greatest wealth at the moment that they face death.”
Lauren Greenfield at work in the bathrooms of the filthy rich.
Given the seriousness of that supposition, you might expect “Generation Wealth” to adopt a somewhat more urgent tone: especially considering that the man who exemplifies the ugliest aspects of this pathology of greed is currently the U.S. president. Photojournalist/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, whose previous doc was 2012’s excellent (and similarly-themed) “The Queen of Versailles,” begin documenting the offspring of the L.A. rich and famous back in the 90s. She grew up in Venice, California and her upper middle-class parents sprung for her to attend the tony Crossroads high school in Santa Monica that many of these kids attended. Greenfield has inserted herself into this work to an extent that rather surprised me. She ends up comparing her obsession with her work projects, and the time it takes away from connecting with her children, with her subjects’ infatuation with wealth and status. This diverts from what I thought should be the main theme: how this American preoccupation with the 1% is helping to shred the social and civic fabric of the nation.
There is a lot more to this topic than just the obvious fall-of-Rome optics in abundance here. Very early on we spend some time with the inappropriately glamorous Eden Wood (as the six year-old star of the notorious TV show “Toddlers and Tiaras”) and her dubious mother. That does lead to some talk about how unfettered capitalism ultimately leads to the “commodification of everything,” including the human body (cue the sex-trade workers and prepare the chamber-of-horrors operating rooms of the body augmenters). Likewise, a little sit-down with former hedge-fund crook Florian Hamm, he of the giant cigar and punchable face, does segue into an exposition about how America’s abandonment of the gold standard (followed closely by the Reagan Revolution) led to the country transforming from an empire of production to an empire of consumption in a few short decades—with all the income inequality that goes with it.
When we used to say “this country is going to the dogs” this wasn’t what we had in mind.
“Generation Wealth” may be an engaging film but at the end of the day this is something less than a full accounting of the issue it’s supposedly confronting. Too often these exasperating and borderline pathetic people are allowed to explain away their nonsensical over-indulgence with little or no counterpoint. Real estate semi-mogul David Siegel, whose stymied effort to build an insanely vulgar 90,000 square-foot home was the subject of “Queen of Versailles,” returns here to inform us that in America if you’re not rich you can at least feel rich and if you don’t want to feel rich, “you’re dead.”
Few people who begrudge anyone making a fortune off their own ingenuity and hard work. But Siegel’s condescending and ridiculous declaration speaks a lot to why the U.S. has approached a state of near-oligarchy. Whether it be the ubiquitous media and public fixation on wealth and stardom, or the Republican Party’s cynical assertion that future tax cuts for the uppermost income brackets will benefit the Average Joe once they magically become rich, this mindset has undercut the importance of maintaining a strong middle class as a check on those who would misuse political or monetary power. We’ve been played for a nation of suckers. “Keeping up with the Joneses” may have been daunting but “Keeping up with the Kardashians” is all but impossible
Sorry, but that won’t be nearly enough to buy you’re way out of hell.
“Generation Wealth” really only offers a couple of voices-of-reason and one of them, incredibly, is the problematic Brett Easton Ellis, author of the infamous “American Pyscho.” Sure, there is lip service to the notion that we are losing a sense of our “authentic culture” along with our critical faculties, and have been left to dream that the world owes us a living. Yet by the last reel, Lauren Greenfield’s workaholic/absentee mom issues seem to have been worked out. We see her new deluxe coffee-table photo book (also called “Generation Wealth”) being printed up and watch as she meets up with some of her subjects at the related art gallery opening. While some of these folks have shown some personal growth, the larger societal problem continues apace. Most tellingly, one of them looks at his younger self, partying in a hot tub with the other spoiled kids, and remarks: “Not much has changed.” How true.