In "Generation Wealth," photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield takes a look at conspicuous consumption in America.
Greenfield, you may recall, was the director of one of the best documentaries of the past decade, 2012's "The Queen of Versailles," a filmed outshoot of her ongoing examination of the social impact of extravagant wealth in the United States. That told the story of a billionaire family in Florida and their quixotic mission to build the biggest, gaudiest house in the country, based on the palace of Louis XIV. Greenfield got the sort of inside view that makes an X-ray technician seem lazy. And she crafted it into a shocking, sensitive, fall-down-funny look at an American Dream gone crazy.
Six years later, Greenfield again gets that marvelous level of access to her subjects but handles them less effectively. She turns her lens on multiple examples of individuals, families and cultish groups who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
As might be expected, they come off as narcissistic, materialistic, apologetic for being corrupted or sad about approaching life as a basket of commodities for sale to the highest bidder.
She introduces a wealthy, driven businesswoman who says that working 100 hours a week, ignoring her family and dying young, is her prerogative. She would rather be dead than not rich, and it looks as if she may get her wish. The film turns to a toddler beauty queen who wants to have a pile of money "as big as this room, and kiss it" as her mother smiles and nods encouragement. And there's a financier in hiding in Germany from the FBI, which is after him for securities fraud. He bellows, "If you think money will buy you anything and everything, you've never, ever had money!"
Amid predictable glimpses at the gold-plated interiors of Trump Tower, Greenfield explores the way our national obsession with wealth has grown. Intellectuals enter the scene to liken it to the depravity of Rome just before its fall or diagnose it as marketing forces promoting a sense of personal inadequacy. Which leads to examinations of a woman who generated an impressive cash flow from porn and another who spent enormous amounts on endless plastic surgeries. As the film continues, so many data points float by that the focus begins to blur into a scattershot battle between people and their own minds.
The most problematic passages come as Greenfield puts herself and her family in front of the camera to examine the renown her work has earned her and the costs it has imposed on her husband and two sons. She concludes that she has been one of the fortunate few who have managed to do everything pretty well. While her understandable pride at her sons' impressive academic achievements seems to bear that out, autobiography isn't a trustworthy documentary form. Despite having been a renowned photographer for more than a quarter-century, Greenfield here seems to have lost her focus.