JULY 20, 2018
“There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w — there must be more money! — more than ever! More than ever!”
— “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” D. H. Lawrence
IN THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, Lily Bart, Edith Wharton’s heroine in that well-known novel of an earlier Gilded Age, contemplates with envy and appreciation the beauty of a porcelain tea service. Wielding her fine-honed sense of materialism, she persuades us that things can embody aesthetic spirituality. In Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary Generation Wealth, we find no such consolation. Here materialism presents itself in the most un-transcendent form. Greenfield has spent the last 25 years studying, photographing, and filming the American drive for wealth and its overflow into the global economy, extending from Los Angeles to Moscow, Dubai to China. And it is not a pretty picture. Greenfield shows us the investment banker who cannot recall the number of homes he owns as he eyes his next yacht; the Orlando time-share mogul who builds a 90,000-square-foot mansion on credit, hoping to outrival the Palace of Versailles; the etiquette coach in Beijing who charges $16,000 to teach proper pronunciation of Western designer labels; the wife of a Russian oligarch who proudly labels herself “a luxury.”
In addition to the mega-rich, Greenfield also shows us the poor — primarily white American women, as she’s chosen to represent them — who are equally caught up in this frantic, often narcissistic, struggle for excess: the school bus driver who puts herself in debt and loses her child and home after traveling to Brazil for plastic surgery (“It was time to focus on me”); the small-town 15-year-old girl who wants to become a porn star because she is determined to “make something of [her]self”; the six-year-old beauty queen who chants through pouty, painted lips, “money, money, money!” while dressed like a Vegas showgirl.
Woven into these blunt portraits of seemingly delusional individuals whose desires for money, beauty, and fame lead them to downfalls of various kinds, Greenfield’s camera also captures more subtle, ironic juxtapositions, many of which underscore the uneven racial and gendered axis of power: the black rapper who boasts of his ability to buy women, “I was throwing money at a person, and she likes it!”; the anorexic socialite who anxiously weighs herself while surrounded by a mountain of luxury goods; the hedge-fund manager who tells us that having a child finally taught her what is important in life, while the camera shows an infant sporting bejeweled sunglasses and a “Future CEO” sign by her crib.
If we ever wondered why, in the age of Trump, the working class should come to identity with a self-styled billionaire, it is because, Greenfield suggests, “wealth” is all about aspiration. As one subject in this documentary puts it, “Fake it ’til you make it.”
Longing suffuses this film: a collective murmuring of want seeps from within and without the narrative. The film’s principal insights — that materialism feeds and hides intangible hunger (the craving for power, fame, privilege, and beauty); that for some there would never be enough; that sex and beauty are sources of abjection and currency for women; that race and gender inflect power differently; that neoliberalism has made commodities out of all of us (artists and scholars included) — are not new. But what does infuse these insights with a novel, if melancholic, power is Greenfield’s own sustained and complicated preoccupation with the world that she documents.
Whispering a “more more more” song of its own, Generation Wealth is itself an expression of voracious appetite and acquisition. It is more than a film; it is an archive, a brand, a franchise, an iteration of articles, photography shows, museum exhibitions, books, catalogs, and sister documentaries (Fast Forward , Thin , The Queen of Versailles , and more). The sheer quantity of images (hundreds of thousands) that Greenfield has captured with her camera for the better part of a quarter century reminds us that there is often a very fine line between curatorial practice (an art that the film underscores when Greenfield shows herself working with her collaborator to shift through thick stacks of photographs for her story board) and hoarding. What compels this documentation — this collecting, this hoarding — is Greenfield’s own accounting of loss.
As a documentarian, Greenfield is not shy about treading close to voyeurism or offering overt judgment, but she tries to soften the harshness of her criticism by placing her own professional and artistic aspirations alongside the other forms of addictive ambitions being documented. Interspersed throughout the film are snippets of Greenfield’s own home videos and interviews with her family members, including her mother, a feminist academic who was abandoned by her mother and who went on to make her own hard decisions about the priorities of work when she moved away from her children while Greenfield was still a minor.
What is unsettling in Generation Wealth is not the morality tale and its attendant values (the difference between, say, surface and depth or superficiality and authenticity), but the unavoidable cyclical nature of compulsion and intergenerational haunting, particularly concentrated around the figure of the mother. The anxiety of motherhood, though never explicitly thematized, gnaws at the edges of this documentary, erupting in multiple incarnations of mothers in the film, including Greenfield’s own mother and Greenfield herself as a mother, and what these maternal figures bequeath or fail to bequeath.
In several, almost random home movie clips — some taken by Greenfield, some by her husband in her absence — we witness scenes of quieter but intense unfurling in Greenfield’s own home: in one scene, we see her son Noah as a cute toddler first standing alone and rather lost in a room and then running out calling “Mommy … Mommy …” to an apparently empty hall; later, we see the same boy, older, scowling into the camera, engaged in what was clearly a well-known game in the house, called “No Camera Allowed.”
There is an especially painful moment when Greenfield interviews her now teen-aged son. In response to her question about what it was like for him that she traveled so much for work, Noah says rather calmly, “Well, the damage is already done.” The camera remains on the son’s face for a few seconds, until he looks uncertain and asks, “You … alright?” Greenfield stays behind the camera, but the camera-focus wavers ever so slightly. It is in these moments that we see the shadow archive haunting this archeology of plenty.
It is by now a commonplace to identify material craving as a substitute for deeper, emotional hunger. But such a diagnosis tends to also assume or imply that some forms of more real or more worthy fulfillment can or ought to be had, overlooking what remains irresolvable in modern everyday life: the often still-incompatible demands, for instance, between work and family, especially for women, what social psychologist Arlie Hochschild famously called the burden of “the second shift.”
If the glimpses that gesture to Greenfield’s biography in the documentary suggest that Greenfield does finally come to terms with her mother from whom the estrangement was both persistent and unspoken, that reunion is delicately balanced against Greenfield’s own ongoing, never-complete outreach to her own sons, especially the eldest who grew up during and alongside this project. Early in the documentary, Greenfield recounts how painful it was for her in 2000 to leave her then-two-week-old firstborn in order to take on a prestigious, 10-day photo assignment in China commissioned by Time magazine. She then goes on to tell us that she made 11 more trips to China and Russia in the next 14 years.
In 2017, in the catalog for the photography exhibit that was an earlier iteration of Generation Wealth, Greenfield ends her introduction with a note of aspiration that already carries its own denial: “And as I run faster and faster toward the finish line of this project, I promised myself I will spend more time with my children when it is done.”
The flip side of this anticipated future is a latent nostalgia — both ideological and personal — that drives Greenfield’s film. But the prelapsarian America of Protestant work ethic and frugality for which the film mourns and to which it aspires never existed. American pastoralism achieved at the expense of genocide and other forms of violence has always been more of a myth and a desire, an imaginary point of ever-receding origin. Consumerism has always been part of the American Dream, ever since the early colonials acted as the middlemen in, and then became avid consumers of, the so-called China Trade (George Washington banked his social standings on the number of china plates and tea cups he owned). What Max Weber called the “worldly asceticism” of American Puritans existed in concert with John Wesley’s exhorting Christians to gain all they could to grow rich. Artists and thinkers from the 19th century to the 20th have repeatedly warned us of the dehumanizing effects of modern capitalism: think of Thomas Cole’s five-part series The Course of Empire depicting the American progress from pastoralism to civilizational success to the gluttony of inevitable decay; or consider writers as diverse as Veblen, Dreiser, Wharton, and Lawrence who have explored in various forms the social and psychological effects of modern consumer culture.
It is thus worth reminding ourselves that Greenfield’s extensive and often arresting visual archive about greed gives us both over-saturation and partial vision. When she moves us from the macro-picture of global capitalism to the micro-interpersonal scale of mothers and children, we get the full affective force of her critique, especially her gender critique. At the same time, the telescopic transition also makes us wonder whether the socio-political has been eclipsed for the familial, displacing the cruel optimism of neoliberalism onto (white) maternal lack.
The question of American wealth and its attendant twin, poverty, is related to but not reducible to personal or familial pathologies. It is not even an issue of pure economics; after all, the wealthiest nations are usually the ones most haunted by the principle of scarcity. All we have to do is read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) to begin to grasp the profound and expansive pathologies of a nation so intently focused on property while ignoring one of the most basic human needs of many of its denizens, a roof overhead. The American Dream, for a great number of people not in Greenfield’s documentary, involves much more modest yet also more inaccessible aspirations: a home, food, education. This tale of plenty is a rehearsal of incompletion on many levels.
The poet Susan Stewart tells us that the object, in the form of the souvenir, gains the source of its power from its very partiality. The souvenir object that we collect can never recuperate the original experience, not because the object is limited, but because the object-as-fragment can generate a supplementary narrative that is more expansive than the original experience. In the end, the haunting fetish logic invoked by Generation Wealth is not the specter of commodity fetishism (though there is plenty of that) but the legacy of partiality — that fraught toggle between possession and dispossession — that plagues and animates our senses of who we are as a privileged nation.
If Lily Bart dreams of aesthetic fulfillment as a stay against the demeaning and constricting realities of materialism, for Greenfield the image revives and erases loss by way of its endless rearticulation. Robert Hass would put it more elegantly: “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.”
Anne Anlin Cheng is professor of English and director of American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief and Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface.