In 1971, the American government untied itself from the gold standard. Every dollar printed used to have an equivalent in gold hiding somewhere in the vaults. No longer. The U.S. was printing money without abandon, and with the gold standard went fiscal discipline – right out the window. The government was spending way beyond its means and soon, especially under Reagan’s guidance, so were the American people. The 80s were about wealth building. A nation of production became a nation of consumption. You may not have had the cash for it, but conspicuous consumption was being a good citizen. When American no longer made products domestically, it stimulated the economy by buying things, lots of things, buying, buying, buying. The American Dream has always been about money.
Director Lauren Greenfield has been one of my favourite documentarians for a long time – especially The Queen of Versailles, another treatise on excess and silly spending. Generation Wealth, however, is less of a story, and more of a scrapbook. In putting together images for a new book, she realizes that much of her work has centered on wealth and the various ways we accrue power – money, fame, sex, youth, beauty.
Greenfield revisits many of her old subjects to see how their lifestyles have treated them: the offspring of famous musicians, porn stars made famous by Charlie Sheen, bankers wanted for wire fraud, Kate Hudson’s classmates. She even examines her own family – her parents, her children in terms of their ambition and legacy.
Generation Wealth is a treasure trove of stirring, thought-provoking images and scenes, but it’s not big on in-depth analysis. The images are perhaps meant to stir you to your own internal inventory. And they’re rather sympathetic, in the end. Greenfield’s lens tends not to judge its subjects, but it’s impossible not to start drawing some unflattering conclusions about the way we live. We used to aspire to keep up with the Joneses, our neighbours, who had just a bit more than we did. Now we don’t even know our neighbours. Most Americans can name more Kardashians than they can the people living to the right, left, or even above them. And TV shows oblige. They’ve literally given us the unsubtle Keeping up with the Kardashians, a family famous for being famous, a mother so power-hungry she was willing to trade her daughter’s bodies for cash since that’s the only commodity they had. But images on TV are quite a bit more posh than your next door neighbour’s slightly less dated patio set. Now we’ve got goals way beyond our means.
But have any of our acquisitions bought us happiness? Is it ever enough? And what happens to our economy, our way of life, if we stopped buying in?
Generation Wealth is a career retrospective for Greenfield. Lacking in contextualization, she shows instead of telling, and it’s up to us to draw our own conclusions, which can hardly be anything but bleak.