Jackie and friends with Versace handbags at a private opening at the Versace store, Beverly Hills, California, 2007. © Lauren Greenfield

“In the Sixties, they unlocked the gilded cages in which some of the aristocrats had felt confined and gave the former outcasts a chance to have a ride inside,” writes Marilyn Bender in her 1967 book The Beautiful People. As style reporter for the New York Times, Bender spent a decade observing the unholy marriage of art, fashion, and money achieved by the postwar boom and a burgeoning media. Her book marked the rise of mass culture and the myth of the classless society. This was a period when the social register mingled with Warhol’s freaks and queens; a Park Avenue housewife could aspire to Girl of the Year; French intellectuals were reading comic books; and youth culture was born from a lust for the new. 

Half a century later, driven by mass media and global capital, the Beautiful People have become Generation Wealth, as photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield puts it. Her commercial and documentary work captures socialites, bankers, rappers, strippers, the down-and-out, and the nouveau riche—all of them touched by “the influence of affluence.”  

Generation Wealth is a multi-platform retrospective of Greenfield’s work over twenty-five years. A museum exhibition, which originated at LA’s Annenberg Space for Photography, arrived at the ICP Museum in New York in September, accompanied by a hefty book bound in gold silk and a forthcoming film. This dense visual history, which pairs images with first-person narratives, begins in LA during the 1990s and tracks the myths of American prosperity around the globe.

The show brings Greenfield back to the museum that first exhibited her work in 1997. That exhibition, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, featured photographs of youth culture in Los Angeles—teenagers in a parking lot after school flashing hundred-dollar bills for the camera; a young boy on a pony posing with his trainer. Fast Forward signaled Greenfield’s interest in consumerism as a powerful influence on individual and social identities.

Later, she explored the impact of consumer culture on feminine identity and the female body in nationally touring exhibitions such as Girl Culture, an exploration of American girlhood and “the self-esteem crisis amongst American women,” and in THIN, her award-winning feature documentary for HBO, which went inside a residential facility for the treatment of women with eating disorders.

Greenfield’s gift for cultural observation was shaped by formative years abroad. She completed undergraduate work in visual and environmental studies at Harvard, during which she spent a year doing film and social-anthropology field study in Europe, Asia, and Australia. A postgraduate fellowship took her to France, where she photographed the rituals and anachronisms of the country’s aristocratic class. Returning home with an outsider’s eye and a documentary impulse, she pursued her inquiry into wealth and status as a photojournalist for National Geographic, TIME, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, Vanity Fair, LIFE, and other magazines.

In Generation Wealth, she synthesizes her ongoing investigation of these themes: “This work is about the aspiration for wealth and how that has become a driving force—and at the same time an increasingly unrealistic goal—for individuals from all classes of society.” In this narrative, consumer culture erases regional differences and social distinctions. In Atlanta, VIPs at a strip club make it rain, tossing stacks of cash into the air for the girls on their hands and knees. In Florida, time-share king David Siegel and his wife Jackie are building the biggest single-family home in America—the subject of Greenfield’s 2012 critical and box-office hit, The Queen of Versailles. In Hangzhou, China, a real-estate billionaire lives in a replica of the White House with a view of Mount Rushmore, built to one-third scale. She documents what sociologist and economist Juliet Schor calls “a consumer binge that is unprecedented in human history, in which the now-quaint competitions of the 1990s over commodities like designer handbags have morphed into a twenty-first-century frenzy to possess the biggest megamansion and the longest yacht.”

Generation Wealth follows the disastrous cycle of cheap credit and a faith in endless growth. After the crash of global markets in 2008, Greenfield found suburban tract houses abandoned by their owners; drained swimming pools in the Inland Empire; failed property developments from Ireland to Dubai. Even Versailles, the Siegel’s dream home, sat unfinished and trapped in foreclosure. But it’s the working and middle classes who pay the highest price for Wall Street greed, as Greenfield’s images suggest. And the real damage may be waiting down the road—as the retail environment expands into private life, as public space retreats into private zones, as the Oval Office is occupied by “the apotheosis of Generation Wealth.” I spoke to Greenfield by phone as she was preparing for the New York opening of her exhibition.

Nicole Miller for Guernica

Guernica: You grew up in LA and returned in the early nineties to photograph kids at your old high school. What drew you back?

Lauren Greenfield: I grew up in Venice and went to a private high school in Santa Monica. In college, I studied film and anthropology. I got an internship at National Geographic, and they gave me my first real professional assignment, which was in a Maya village in the highlands of Chiapas. I went with my mom, a professor who had been doing cross-cultural psychology there for twenty years. I kind of imagined that my life was going to be bringing back images from faraway places, but in Chiapas, I was struggling to make pictures that were unique or my own; I was trying to learn the Maya language and struggling with access. As a woman, I was relegated to the female realms of life, which National Geographic was not particularly interested in.

In the house we were renting, I found an old copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero, and I started thinking about where I grew up. I hadn’t really felt at home in that private-school world of wealth and materialism. I thought about the ways I’d seen the place depicted, like Beverly Hills, 90210. I decided to go back to LA and look at the kids growing up there in the world of Hollywood wealth. All of the themes and trends that I was discovering in the early nineties blew up shortly after as mass media became more entrenched, and the Internet and social media became a way of life. In a way, what I’ve documented over the last twenty-five years was the global spread of a lot of the things that I saw in LA in the nineties.

Guernica: What were some of the themes and trends you were seeing?

Lauren Greenfield: I documented the rise of a ubiquitous media, including social media, and the rise of advertising and marketing that was directed at the most vulnerable—kids, particularly young girls. I was interested in how kids are changed by exposure to this media-saturated society. It seemed to me that kids were growing up quicker in this world and that there was an early loss of innocence. I photographed a girl named Phoebe for my first book and museum exhibition, Fast Forward. At three, she’s kind of lounging in the shoe department at Barney’s, looking like she’s already weary of the world. I photographed a lot of bar mitzvah parties and proms where the kids are posing as adults. I was seeing adult life and values and materialism reflected in the kids in a more honest and visible way, because the kids parroted the adults so candidly.

What I’m documenting can be hard to distill, because it’s all around us like the air we breathe. I often need to go to a place where I can capture extreme moments. Take The Queen of Versailles, for example. I was really interested in the growth of the house and the democratization of luxury, where working-class and middle-class people were building pools and moving farther away from their jobs so they could have walk-in closets. I think I was drawn to David and Jackie Siegel because they’re the ultimate example of that insatiable and irrational quality that infects all of us. It was somehow in this most extreme example—the largest house in America—that I could document these ideas in a way that regular people could also relate to.

Guernica: In the film, you interview one of Jackie Siegel’s former neighbors in Binghamton, NY, who says that “the American Dream is raising way up above what you started with, and achieving something way beyond what anybody would dream you would.” Many of your subjects also touch on this theme, with varying definitions. What’s the status of the American Dream today?

Lauren Greenfield: One of the things that’s a benchmark for me was Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. His character Gordon Gekko says, “Greed is good.” He’s portrayed in the film as a villain, and yet he became a role model for a generation on Wall Street. During the Reagan eighties, this idea began to emerge that money was a good thing—that not only was it OK to have money, it was good to be rich; that wealth was a reflection of your character. We see this today in perceptions of Trump: the idea that money is an expression of success and even goodness. I compare that with my dad’s generation, where the American Dream was about giving your kids a better life, but not just in material terms. The American Dream was also about doing something good in the world. The home was at the center of the dream, but home also represented community, shelter, and stability for your family. The idea of social mobility had this foundation, and real estate was a part of that foundation, but not for its own sake.

Guernica: In your book Generation Wealth, economist Chris Hedges points to the 1970s as a turning point, when we went off the gold standard and shifted from an economy of production to one of consumption.

Lauren Greenfield: The 1970s were the height of social mobility. College was accessible. My grandfather was a poor immigrant who went to a public school in Ohio, and my father went to Harvard. That wasn’t unusual. There was a feeling that anything was possible and you didn’t have to be born into money to have a successful life. Now, people don’t believe in the idea that anything is possible. We have more inequality than we’ve had ever before and a greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. A lot of people feel that real social mobility is not in their grasp, and so there isn’t that same long-term goal of working hard for the next generation. The media has supported this “get rich quick” idea; it’s not just about being middle class, it’s about being a “baller.” The focus has shifted to appearance, and bling, and the idea of “fake it till you make it,” because there’s no actual social mobility.

One of the images that I took in LA during the nineties is a picture of Kim Kardashian at age twelve going to a party. I didn’t publish that photograph in Fast Forward, because I wasn’t interested in her at the time. She hadn’t become the Kim Kardashian that we know. But when I was going through the outtakes, I recognized her and put her in Generation Wealth because Kim Kardashian has become a really important touchstone for me. The economist Juliet Schor talks about how our reference group has changed over the last twenty-five years. We used to compare ourselves to our neighbor, who maybe had a slightly newer car than we did. As we spend less time with our neighbors, we’re spending more time with people we know from TV and social media, and this becomes our new reference group. The media is full of images of people with wealth, and we’re comparing ourselves to them and aspiring to what they have. Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, we’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians, even though it’s completely unrealistic.

Guernica: Earlier this summer, David Brooks caused a flap with a piece in the Times about social mobility. He was responding to a new book by economist Richard Reeves, which discusses the structural barriers to mobility in America—things like residential zoning laws and college admissions procedures. Brooks claimed that these structural barriers are less important than the informal social barriers that enforce economic segregation. It seems to me that your work has something to say about the relationship between economic capital and cultural capital.

Lauren Greenfield: I think my work shows that cultural capital is very democratic. These days, the media is defining what cultural capital is, and it’s easily learned. If you have money, anything can be bought. We see this in China and Russia with what I call the “Bling Dynasty and New Oligarchy” in Generation Wealth. As people got rich and everybody started buying Louis Vuitton bags, it became clear that to distinguish yourself you had to have more than an expensive bag. People began to want the things that money is not supposed to be able to buy—history, tradition, education, and culture. So they bought it. I photographed a real-estate developer in Moscow who builds houses for oligarchs influenced by American mansions and California architecture. His homes come with a curated library of international literature and an art collection with a museum-quality catalogue. In China, people can take a two-week, $16,000 course to learn how to eat caviar and oysters and how to enjoy “noble” sports like polo. They believe that this is essential for their success on the world stage. There’s an ad executive, Tom Doctoroff, who says that in China, luxury is not frivolous. It’s a tool on the battlefield of life. He’s speaking to exactly what you’re talking about.

Guernica: I think that your work also suggests that in America, capital is the cultural code.

Lauren Greenfield: And not just in America!

Guernica: Right. But as others have pointed out, nuanced cultural codes may be more relevant in a place like France, where sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has mapped out various forms of cultural or symbolic capital that allow people to navigate social borders.

Lauren Greenfield: After college, I spent a year with a noble family in France, photographing the French aristocracy. I was interested in how they were able to stay intact as a class. Even though many in the aristocracy did not have money, they had status.

Today, my response is crasser: you can buy education and gain access. Take yachts, for example. In 2014, I documented a yachting convention in the north of China. Yachting is not part of the Chinese tradition, but Europeans are hoping to access this new market by selling China the idea of Western luxury. Even if the Chinese didn’t like the sun or know how to swim, they were interested in the status that the yacht represented and the opportunity it brought for networking with other business people. Yachts were being designed for bringing colleagues onboard to do business, unlike in Europe, where the yacht would be used for the family. The writer Devin Friedman calls it Yachtland—a post-national, fictional place, where people from all over the world have this shared identity. In places like Monaco and St. Bart’s and St. Moritz, you see Russians and Americans and Arabs and Europeans vacationing together and socializing, and what they have in common is a love for yachts and expensive sports and this shared culture of the 1 percent.

Guernica: It seems to me that in America, one significant barrier to Yachtland is race. How do the signifiers of wealth play out across racial lines?

Lauren Greenfield: Race is a huge factor when it comes to income and social inequality, and it plays a role in the structural barriers you are talking about. But when you’re in the upper echelon of the 1 percent—even though it’s certainly a more white demographic overall—there are fewer barriers. I documented Christmas in St. Bart’s, where you literally have to have five hundred dollars in your pocket to be able to have lunch. What I saw there was Martha Stewart hanging out with Puff Daddy and Ron Perlman and Russell Simmons. 

Guernica: The people of color that you mention and those in the book are often hip-hop artists or rappers. Rap culture is very alert to this central fact of American life: if you don’t have cash, you’re nothing.

Lauren Greenfield: Exactly. That’s why hip-hop has been so important in my work, because it speaks to the idea of money being tied to cultural capital in an honest and transparent way. When I was growing up in LA, money was equivalent to class, and it was a passport. Hip-hop emphasizes that, but Hollywood and show business bear it out. If you have money, there really is no barrier to social mobility. There are still social clubs in Newport where you can’t get in even if you have money, but that is really rare.

Guernica: One of the few women in Generation Wealth who makes her own money outside the sex industry is a hedge fund manager in New York named Suzanne. You returned to her over a period of nine years, documenting her experiences as she got married and struggled to get pregnant and later divorced. Why did you want to photograph her?

Lauren Greenfield: I originally met Suzanne for an article for Marie Claire about women in the US who spent the most money on body maintenance. Among the women in the piece, Suzanne spent the most. For her, too, luxury was a tool on the battlefield of life. She wasn’t spending money on body maintenance just for vanity; she also felt that it was important for her business. I thought that was interesting: here’s this really successful female financier in a male-dominated culture, and she also has to look good. As she says, women get the short end of the stick. The currency of youth and beauty and sexuality is relevant not just for women who are professional sex workers or models. This beauty-pageant culture affects all women from cradle to grave.

I also related to Suzanne in terms of my generation’s choice to delay childbirth for career and the complications that created later. Our generation felt like we could buy anything; we could delay childbearing because we had access to technology. As Suzanne struggled with fertility, she was very honest about her ambition to achieve her professional goals, but then she realized that having a baby was the most important thing to her.

Guernica: You’ve also done advertising work, including a 2014 commercial for Always that went viral, #LikeAGirl. When you’re documenting these extravagant worlds, how do you make images that are not advertisements for a particular lifestyle? How do you puncture the ideology of luxury?

Lauren Greenfield: I’m constantly trying to deconstruct what I see—“Why do we want this bag?”—and to show its beauty and its attraction. I use really bright colors and strobes to get that full reflection. Even my book is wrapped in gold silk. I want to acknowledge and reference the attraction of wealth. But I’m also looking for the layer that reveals how wealth doesn’t fulfill its promise. My subjects are often the truthtellers in the stories they share. The investment banker Florian Homm was worth $800 million—he had homes, yachts—and yet, when he asked his wife what he could buy her, she said, “I just want you to get off your phone so we can have a nice dinner.” He couldn’t do that. He lost her, and then he lost everything else when he was indicted in a stock manipulation scheme. These stories are as much about addiction as they are about aspiration. Homm calls it a diamond-studded hamster wheel. I want viewers to look at the images and see their own complicity. We unconsciously buy into certain ideologies every day. But when we become conscious of them, they start to lose their power over us.

I’m also looking for the psychological elements that fuel commodity culture. For example, if we imbue girls with deep insecurity about their bodies through images of an impossible ideal, we create a really vulnerable and avid consumer. If somebody feels that they’re not OK without a certain product, you have a very deep and loyal market that will come back to the product again and again. Sometimes, this process is both rational and irrational. I photographed a teenager in LA who had felt inadequate about her nose since she was little, and it was debilitating for her. She got a nose job when she was eighteen. In the context of her culture, it was a positive step for her and she was much happier. I’m interested in offering a critique of the culture that makes an eighteen-year-old so self-conscious. Even though your life may become better, something else will need to be fixed.

This culture isn’t limited to the rich. When I was showing The Queen of Versailles in New York, some people were a little bit snobby about it. They said, “They have no taste. We would have better taste.” It’s easy to say, “I’m not the Queen of Versailles,” but the same appetite is present in the “dwell” phenomenon—in our obsession with modernist furniture. I’ve tried to show a broad cross section of society to demonstrate that none of us are outside of this.

Guernica: There’s something about Versailles that I imagine many New Yorkers would call campy—its baroque artifice, its layered excess. You also see it in the ruffles and frills of the Toronto socialite who takes style cues from Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. You see it in Alexander McQueen’s Armadillo boots, which Lady Gaga made famous. Those boots are off the cliff of what is useful or functional. That privileging of form over function, which New Yorkers may call tasteless, plays an important role in a camp sensibility.

Lauren Greenfield: I’m very interested in those environments that allow me to show the artifice. I love the symbolism of gold as a status marker. The gilded, tacky luxury that you’re describing is also the aesthetic of our current president. In one of his homes, I think there’s actually gold in the paint and Corinthian columns. He’s appropriating the aesthetic of the French aristocracy as a model for luxury and power.

Guernica: I understand that the filmmaker Chris Marker was a formative influence on you. Why were you drawn to his work?

Lauren Greenfield: During my third year in college, I got to travel around the world as a film and anthropology student and live with local families. That was the year I realized that I wanted to work in culture. In Paris, we got to meet Chris Marker and see part of his film Sans Soleil. The way that he fused nonfiction and personal storytelling was a revelation for me. My work is not like his in the sense that I’m more documentary-based, but I also go into the personal through interviews with my subjects. And my work also contains a collision of cultures. I love the way he explored how culture meant something different to him than to the people he was filming, and it was this interpretive visual anthropology that I found very inspiring—especially coming from a background of academic visual anthropology where there are so many rules and you could spend eight hours looking at how a basket is woven.

Guernica: For me, his films always seem to address disappearance and loss, as though he’s documenting some future ruins. Do you have a sense that you’re seeing a vanishing world?

Lauren Greenfield: In a way, photographers are always documenting a vanishing world—both in front of and behind the camera. In the last twenty-five years, I’ve gone from analog to digital, from photography to filmmaking, from recorded audio to video to 4K video. I’ve also been documenting an unsustainable way of life. The financial crash of 2008 was one of those moments when we realized that things are not going to work out if we maintain this direction.

And you see in peoples’ stories that this world of consumerism does not support the moral and spiritual values—of family and community—that people feel are most important. From an environmental perspective, the quest for more and more is not going to be possible on this planet. This is a historical documentation of an unsustainable path, and my hope is that this work allows people to think about their own agency and the potential for change.

Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her criticism and interviews have appeared in Guernica, Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She serves as an editor for the digital arts journal Underwater New York.

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2 Comments on “Lauren Greenfield: Generation Wealth

  1. what I found most interesting about this interview is the narcissism at the heart of it all – a woman from a very privileged background who uses her privilege to document her privilege. I wish that there was a photographer from a less privileged background who could photograph her photographing her friends. A photographer who could register the shock of seeing this lifestyle first hand, because s/he did not grow up in it.

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