By Kim Hughes
The celebrated photographer and documentary filmmaker has been taking the pulse of our money-grubbing, fame-obsessed, Fall of the Roman Empire-type society for decades, through films, photo exhibits, books and, most notably in 2012's widely acclaimed The Queen of Versailles.
That film followed a likable/repellent couple, Jackie and David Siegel, as they attempted to build the largest and most expensive single-family home in the United States, a dream they might have realized had the 2008 financial crisis not transpired, leaving the Siegel’s Westgate Resorts time-share business in financial straits.
While not a sequel to that film, Generation Wealth is connected to it thematically. This time out, Greenfield casts her net wider, speaking with a variety of subjects — disgraced former investment banker Florian Homm, porn star Kacey Jordan, Paris Cronin, son of REO Speedwagon singer Kevin Cronin, Canada’s own Suzanne Rogers, and a coterie of spendthrift, shamelessly grasping others — to establish just how far off-track the so-called American Dream has veered.
We are richer than ever, Greenfield argues, and yet our “wealth culture” has left us spiritually impoverished.
Interestingly, Greenfield also turned the camera on herself and her children to establish just how complicit we all are in promoting (or at least, buying into) this rampant, vacuous consumerist mindset that prizes status and fancy objects above family, good deeds, morality, and plain old happiness.
Original-Cin spoke with Greenfield ahead of Generation Wealth’s July 27 Canadian opening. As she tells it, there may still be hope for us yet.
Original-Cin: You’ve been working towards this film your whole life, it seems. Can you pinpoint the moment when it all coalesced in your mind?
Lauren Greenfield: The idea for the project came to me when I was making The Queen of Versailles and how the crash (of 2008) affected so many people and turned a lot of the stories I was doing on consumerism and celebrity into a kind of morality tale. I felt like the sum of all the stories revealed how we had changed as a culture. I started thinking of how the American Dream had changed, so that was the genesis of the project. The American Dream of my parents’ generation — symbolized by hard work, frugality, discipline, and the idea that if you lived right, you could do something for yourself and your children — morphed into this bloated notion of celebrity and bling and narcissism. I began by pulling the photography together into a book and wanted to go deeper into the subject. So, I started making the film.
OC: Did you always envision yourself as being such an essential part of the story?
LG: No. It really evolved unexpectedly in that cinéma vérité way that happens in documentary where you don’t quite know where you’re going to get to until you get into it. I did expect to be part of the film as a narrator, being the connective tissue between the stories. I really wanted to bring together different stories from very different experiences but were part of the same arc of how we had changed. My work has always been personal. And even though I started interviewing my parents and my kids more as representatives of their generations, it quickly became personal as it did with my other subjects. And I got interested in the psychology of what drives us. Parallels were revealed. I also wanted to make the point — which is central to my work — that we are all complicit in this story.
OC: Was it as uncomfortable interviewing your family as it seemed to be on-screen?
LG: (Laughs). It was definitely… what you see is exactly what it was. It was very emotionally intimate, raw. And there were definitely challenges. My mom keeps it together all the time and I was pushing her to bring out an emotional truth that might be behind the words, which is something I do with all my subjects. I also went into it without having any idea of what I would use, which gives you freedom because it didn’t feel like either of us had to say a particular thing. It was open to whatever we revealed.
OC: There seems to be something of a backlash happening against these excessive lifestyles. A persuasive new book called Meet the Frugalwoods comes to mind, and now your film. Are we poised on a movement here?
LG: Certainly, the subjects in the film come to that place [that love and family are what’s really important] but I don’t think as a society that we are there yet. I think maybe there are signs among the millennials. But part of why I wanted to make this film after Queen of Versailles is that we didn’t learn our lesson. We kept on doing the same thing. We’ve been on this boom and it feels like we’re going to have another economic crash as well as being in this place of moral loss.
OC: What’s the most surprising thing you learned in making this film?
LG: That I had a parallel in my own story to what I had been documenting. It made sense because I have always been doing this work as an insider and an outsider and I show that in the film. Me being a teenager wanting the fancy clothes and then wondering why I wanted it. I think the optimistic ending was also a surprise. I spent a lot of time documenting how dark things had become and how unsustainable it all seemed as this rise of consumerism spread to other parts of the country. But the ending showed how change was possible.
OC: What will success look like for you with this movie?
LG: After my son Noah saw the film at Sundance, he did a Q&A. He was asked what he thought about his evolution in the film and he said, ‘My grandma says at the end of the film that she wishes she had talked about these issues earlier with my mom because it would have improved their relationship. And I am glad I got a chance to talk about them with my mom because it improved our relationship.’ At that moment I thought, ‘If no one ever sees this film, it was still worth it!’ But I do hope that people see it and take a look at themselves and how we are all complicit in this thing, so we can arrive at a critical mass of realizing the change that is needed.