Lauren Greenfield was in a hotel room in Germany, far from her home in Southern California, when she realized she might be working on an autobiography. She had known for some time that the project that would come to be known as “Generation Wealth” was inherently personal – after all, it was at the start of her career on assignment for National Geographic, embedded in a Mayan village in Chiapas for a shoot that would never see the light of day, that she decided to shift her focus to an environment she had more personal insight into, turning her lens towards the kids at Crossroads High School, the private school she had attended herself, to document wealth as a formative influence. But it was during an interview with Florian Homm, a former hedge-fund manager confined to a palatial estate in Frankfurt to avoid extradition to the U.S. after being charged with defrauding investors of $200 million, that Greenfield saw that she had fallen prey to the central thesis at the heart of the 25-year-long project — that after considerable success and acclaim, she always wanted more.
“The turning point was talking to Florian, who said that “Work was also an addiction” and he looked at me like, “I have your number,” recalls Greenfield. “And I realized that he did because I was far from home in Germany, on my way to Iceland, trying to connect with my kids through FaceTime, so it wasn’t like I wanted to be in the film. But I felt like I had to be when it was relevant.”
In making herself a part of “Generation Wealth,” Greenfield generously gives audiences the kind of film you wish that documentarians of her stature might more often pursue, revisiting her subjects to not only see how their lives have changed since she first snapped photos of them, but the cumulative effect of seeing how the experiences of taking their pictures shaped her. Never one to simply capture an image, Greenfield draws on audio and video recordings she made from the earliest days of her career with subjects to compare with present-day interviews and perhaps even more intriguingly, applies the same rigor to interrogating her own family, both her parents and her children, to understand the growing inequity between perceived wealth and what actually holds value.
Like her previous film “The Queen of Versailles,” there is both great comedy — and tragedy — in seeing the contradictions of the extravagance on display as Greenfield charts a course from Atlanta and Las Vegas where strippers and VIP hostesses build their own fortunes through the gratuities of free-spenders often unfamiliar with having to work, to Russia and Iceland where the ability of afford the unthinkable at one time has led to consequences beyond immediate comprehension, making the filmmaker’s longitudinal study all the more vital in its observations that are as rich as the people it profiles. After its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, “Generation Wealth” is just now starting its theatrical run across the country and Greenfield spoke about the process of closing this very big chapter of her career with the book and film of the same name, feeling the need to insert herself into the story and the timeliness of work that she’s been striving towards for nearly a quarter century.
Did you always know you’d be as much a part of this film as you ended up being?
I started out as the narrator, but I became more like Nick Carraway in “The Great Gatsby” where he’s an observer, and [because] I also learned about myself, I wanted that to be part of the story too. I always try to keep myself out of the story and not hear my voice, but even in the beginning of making this as a documentary, I felt like I was going to need to be the connective tissue in some way because I was trying to link people and ideas that I thought were connected, but might seem disparate to other people without me making those connections. I wanted to look at what drew me to the different subjects at the time and how in the artist’s process, it is very personal. I started photographing materialism in kids in L.A. because I was affected by that as a kid and I wanted to look at aging because I was made self-conscious about wrinkles in my twenties, and [because I] went from being a kid to being a mother, that affected my photography, so this was a deeper dive into that.
The idea of “Generation” didn’t come into being until I was working on the film and it was almost like the film grew into its title. I was thinking of “Generation Wealth” in the beginning as the span of a generation – 25 years – what’s changed in this generation to be a generation about wealth, and what happened was my inquiry got deep into parenting and how we transmit our values as well as the baggage, trying to give our kids a little bit better than what we were given, which is the heart of the American Dream.
From those audio recordings you hear at the start of the film, it seems like you were always intent on doing more than being a photographer – how has that process evolved, if at all, of capturing your subjects not just on film, but in all facets?
Yeah, it was always an important part of my work. When I first started, it was just a tape recorder, not even good audio, out on the schoolyard, tons of noise. It was just for my own research to try to figure out what to photograph, but one of the first interviews I did was the one with Adam, who [can be seen in the film] at the bar mitzvah where his face is in the breasts of the go-go dancer, and he’s talking about how he wanted to have a big bar mitzvah and how everybody everybody spends $50,000 [on it], but he also said, “Money ruins kids.” That’s when I realized that the subjects could also be the truth tellers — that in a way they were the best social critics. Even though they were in the eye of the storm, it was something they were still able to see clearly. So I’ve always kind of done that — gotten the information, even the point of view and the critique — from the subjects, so I feel really indebted to them and try not be judgmental of their choices, but really to show what makes them make the choices that they do.
Even if there is that self-critique, your pictures can bring it out in a way they might not initially see for themselves. Does that make the process of revisiting your subjects a challenge?
Yeah, everybody’s eyes were open, especially now. They’ve worked with me before and they’ve seen the pictures and plus, now we live in a time where even people that I don’t know Google you and see all your work before you show up at their door. So we had conversations. For Mijanou, it was a big decision because she had gotten so far away from that life at Beverly High where she was [named in the yearbook for having] “Best Physique” and she wanted to get away from it, and in a way, my picture was bringing her back. But we had this connection because that picture launched my career and defined her and was so iconic and it’s always there, so as she’s come into her own as a woman, I think she also respects the work that I’ve done on gender, so there was a mutual respect and relationship that allowed her to agree to participate. There’s also a certain amount of generosity [of the subjects] to be part of it, but not necessarily a desire. Like in Mijanou’s case, she didn’t want to be famous. She wanted to just live her life, but I think she cared enough to do it.
There are some shoots in the film like Iceland or Magic City that look like they could be from other documentary ideas you might’ve been pursuing over the years and found a place for here. Was that at all the case?
It was the other way around. A lot of my work has been fueled or funded by smaller stories, so I’ve been on this “Wealth” journey [for a while] and I tried to only take stories that would fit into this. I did this before, like when I was working on “Girl Culture” where I take assignments that I don’t know how that will fit into the puzzle, but I try to take every opportunity where I think I’m going to learn more in this journey. Magic City was one of the last pieces of it. I thought it was done, but when GQ called me up and said we want you to come to a strip club where people are throwing money up in the air and it’s from rich to poor, and everyone from the world of rap is there, I was like, “Sign me up” right away. In the context of “Generation Wealth,” it wasn’t really about Magic City, it was about this place that was this microcosm of the American Dream in its most transactional and raw form. [You see] the money going up in the air and the transactional way the girls were using their bodies and the “fake it till you make it” [ethos] that was really at the core of “Generation Wealth.”
It’s one thing to have these ideas circulating in your head for years from different shoots, but what was it actually like to see them colliding onscreen?
We were cutting for 30 months, and the excess and the addiction of my work in the film was definitely part of this process. I don’t want to say it was irrational. I think that’s what it took in the end, but it was a very organic process. It was not written [out beforehand]. It was trying tons of things. In a documentary, the editors are the directors in a way and I worked with four editors who all brought something really different to the table and gave me criticism and perspective of my own work that I needed. I didn’t want to be in it at first and our first editor Aaron Wickenden felt strongly that I should be, and he kept trying different things and I saw something that did make sense for me. Then as you see in the film, I have this magnetic wall in my studio and it started out with more than 500 cards and they weren’t scene cards. Each one was a different person and obviously, [my editors] had a hard time with that and gradually we were able to make the connections. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I understood that story I was trying to tell, and then it was weaving the characters’ evolution, getting rid of the characters that were not necessary and allowing my story to also be intertwined.
You’re editing this in correspondence with the rise of Donald Trump, which has its roots in this impression of wealth. Are you thinking about how this might look five years from now as opposed to get caught up in the moment?
I certainly was in terms of Trump, which I think was the most temporal kind of piece of it, because it was hard to tell how long that moment would last. It’s lasted a long time, so far. [laughs] But I had been working on this work for 25 years and it wasn’t a movie about Trump. And yet Trump was the apotheosis — he legitimized what I had been looking at as important and showed us that this is the expression of “Generation Wealth,” so I included towards the end, a Trump rally [where] you see David and Jackie Siegel [from “The Queen of Versailles”] there supporting him and he says, “This isn’t about me, it’s about you.” And that’s what I wanted to say — that this isn’t about Trump. It’s about Trump as a symptom of “Generation Wealth.” There are a lot of people who will do great work about Trump and who he is and why, but I feel like what I had to offer was a deep dive into the culture that made this possible. And whatever happens in the future, this is what’s happening in our time and I felt like I could stand behind that in a way that hopefully will stand the test of time.
There’s an incredible shot in the film that says so much when you catch Robin Leach, the former host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” looking quite disheveled in Las Vegas. How did that come about?
Tiffany Masters, one of the characters, the VIP hostess, is friends with Robin Leach, so that was something that I shot with her, but I was just so pleased to be able to bring it into the film because “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was a pioneer of this journey into “Generation Wealth.” One of the things that has happened over 25 years is that the images of luxury and wealth have become much more ubiquitous than they used to be and research shows that when you see that all the time, you think that’s normal. People want that and I think that desire is a big part of this driving of from rich to poor, everybody wanting more, and Robin Leach was a pioneer of that.
For yourself personally, what is it like to have such a keepsake of your work?
I feel a huge weight off my shoulders. Even fact-checking each caption for the book, I feel like it allowed me to really complete something in a way that can last and I can just put it away and move on. For photographers, there is a weight of the archive. You just build all this stuff that you’re never going to have a chance to look through, especially as we’ve gone from analog to digital. Everybody has pretty much given up on scanning their pictures. Corbis and Getty started with these very ambitious plans and it’s just too much fucking work, and of course, we didn’t scan everything, but we scanned over 10,000 pictures and I got a chance to really look at [the pictures] and process with Trudy [Wilner Stack] the curator and try to make sense of it. Finding the pictures of Kim Kardashian at 12 that were not published before — that wasn’t part of any of my work before because they weren’t important back when I shot them — so that was really a great part of the experience for me was to really get to look back and make sense of things in retrospect. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to have a retrospective, like a greatest hits. Maybe that’s something you do when you’re old. I was really trying to use the work in a way as evidence of what we had become and now I feel the freedom to start new projects.
“Generation Wealth” opens on July 20th in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark and in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center at Lincoln Center. A full list of theaters and dates is here.