Greenfield, who chronicles her own life and career alongside her subjects in Generation Wealth, from private school in Santa Monica to Harvard, where she was a legacy student, comes to the realization that her photography work has always been at some level about wealth and status, even if she never entirely realized it. She returns to some of the subjects in her earliest work: the students at Crossroads in Santa Monica, now in their late 30s and early 40s, doing Where Are They Nows alongside portraits of burgeoning consumption cultures in Russia, where she attends a debutante ball for the children of oligarchs; China, where she meets a businessman who has built a miniature Mount Rushmore in his yard, and Iceland, to see a fisherman who became a banker during the credit boom. She treats consumerism, as she overtly states it, like a contagion, tracing its origin to the US in the late 70s and 80s, and chronicling its outward spread.
One of her subjects is a Las Vegas “fixer,” who plans bachelor parties and bottle service, brokering com-modified women and consulting in all manner of bacchanalia. Greenfield cleverly turns the camera on the fixer’s 21-year-old son, raised in “the life,” who at one point deadpans, “I’d like to DJ for as long as I have fingers, but I’m also really big into lizards.”
The kid turns out to have an entire, lizard-based retirement plan. It’s magical.
We should be rightly horrified by our moronic excess and Greenfield wields beautifully the Medusa mirror. If there’s one place it stumbles, it’s late in the film, as Greenfield gropes toward a prescription, some kind of solution or coping strategy for our pervasive decline.
Generation Wealth is, as Greenfield surely intended, a valuable and necessary work of cultural anthropology, that entertains even as it horrifies. It’s an important watch that never feels like homework.
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