Image: Getty

In the 1990s, director/photographer Lauren Greenfield began a project taking pictures of high school students at her affluent Los Angeles alma mater, Crossroads. One of the shots was of a group of boys flashing what Greenfield thought were dollar bills at her. Later at home, when she reviewed the camera’s film, she realized those weren’t ones but hundred-dollar bills.

The level of insane wealth that allowed teen boys to carry hundreds in their pockets like it was nothing has fueled Greenfield’s work for decades. From documenting the commodification of women’s bodies and eating disorders (in projects like Girl Culture and the unsettling 2006 documentary Thin) to shining a light on the over-the-top fantasies of the immensely wealthy and their downfall (in The Queen of Versailles), her body of work is a gilded, marble-floored trip into the pretty but oppressive nature of capitalism.

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Greenfield’s documentary Generation Wealth (in limited theaters today, July 20) and its accompanying book operates not just as a survey of her career, but a survey of the lives of her subjects. In the film, she revisits the bankers, hedge-fund executives, rock star children, and porn stars she’s photographed in the past to capture a contemporary snapshot of what our obsession with wealth has done to society. Greenfield’s documentary feels uncomfortably prescient at a time when the President of the United States is a real estate tycoon turned reality TV star with dollar signs fixed in his eyes.

But Generation Wealth is also surprisingly personal, especially for a photographer who’s dedicated her career to examining other people. While digging through her archives and interviewing her subjects about their obsession with money and work, Greenfield also reflects on how her parents’ workaholic tendencies are much like her own, proving that the cyclical addiction for more, more, more comes for us all.

Here, in a condensed and edited conversation, Greenfield and I talk about her film, body positivity, social media, and more.

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JEZEBEL: Looking across all your work, why would you say you’ve been so drawn to wealth and money?

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LAUREN GREENFIELD: Well, I didn’t really know that was the unifying theme until I started investigating this. That’s definitely where I started out with [my book] Fast Forward and looking at kids in Los Angeles and how they were influenced by materialism and celebrity. By the time we got to the financial crisis and the Queen of Versailles, I started to think that maybe there was a through line. I realized that my work on gender really connected because of the idea of the commodification of girls’ bodies and how that linked.

In terms of why I was attracted to this in the beginning, I grew up with parents who were very anti-materialistic. It was the ’70s and I actually grew up in communes, and then they sent me to a fancy private school where everybody had designer clothes and their own cars. As a kid, I kind of wanted those things [and] to fit in, but then I also questioned why I wanted them, because I knew it wasn’t what my parents taught me was really valuable. It was that conflict that made me wanna investigate. Looking back, I just really started to see it as this through line about how our culture had changed. What started in the ’80s with Reagan, Gordon Gekko, and Wall Street, had just kind of gone on overdrive in the 25 years.

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You mention the financial crisis, and obviously a lot of your work is about how people lived before it and the consequences that people faced afterwards. Do you find that people have become less ostentatious with their wealth or aspire for wealth differently in 2018 as opposed to 2000?

I feel like it’s 2007. It feels like it’s right before the crash again. After the crash, a lot of the subjects of my work learned valuable lessons and said, “We’re never going to be like this again,” and then quickly relapsed. In a way that’s where this movie comes from: me seeing the relapse and saying, “What happened, I thought we all learned from this?” I really turned to the analogy of addiction, and it seems that we have relapsed and you can’t really recover without hitting rock bottom. In the movie, there’s the financial crisis, but then there’s a lot of other personal crashes. Some people have insights and change, but some don’t.

You have that really interesting thread in the film where you talk about your mother’s intense relationship to her work, and your intense relationship to your work, and you have that incredible interview with your son that’s so emotional, where there’s such a strong parallel between your career and your mother’s. Going into the film, did you have a strong understanding of how cyclical these desires can be over time?

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When I first called it Generation Wealth, it was a title I came up with, with a writer who was helping me, and we were kind of drafting an idea for the film. It was really about this generation of 25 years and how we changed. It inspired me to look at the children, look at the parents, think about legacy and agency and the shit that we’re given that we pass on unconsciously, but then the possibility for change.

In my case that ended up being around work and seeing how I was also in my own cycle of addiction, [though it] wasn’t as pathological or extreme. I didn’t wanna make a direct comparison [with my subjects] because I didn’t want to trivialize their troubles with mine, which are maybe a bit more ordinary. But on the other hand, I learned about myself along the way, and I hope that the audience does, too, and doesn’t feel like, This isn’t me because it’s a hedge fund banker or a porn star. I wanted to make the point that we’re all complicit.

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How did it feel turning the camera on yourself?

I think it’s uncomfortable. I did it in the beginning not knowing if I would use it, but I ended up feeling like it was important to show how we’re all up in this in different ways. My issue wasn’t money, but it was never having enough and that had a cost with my family. Ultimately, I feel like the movie is about waking up to what’s around you and seeing it clearly. And I’m still the same person, but there’s something about seeing how it affected my kids and how I got it from my mom that made me more aware of what they needed. And it did change my action, even if it’s in small ways. I mean, I still work, I still love my job. It makes me also balance it out a little bit more in a way that I don’t think I valued as much before.

Some of the behavior of your subjects in the film, the way people engage with their money, is sort of insane to the average person. But you’ve always managed in your work to get the audience to relate to them and sympathize with them, even if we initially wouldn’t be on board with their choices. I’m interested in how you find that balance as a documentarian. 

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I’m really trying not to judge the people that are generous enough to tell me their stories, but I’m really trying to understand how they make the choices they do. And I’m really being critical of the culture that I think impinges on us and influences those choices. So for example, there’s a girl, Lindsey, in Fast Forward who gets a nose job at 18 and six of her 10 close friends have already had plastic surgery. She was so miserable with her nose that she would only sit in one seat in class so people couldn’t see her profile, and she was really happier after she got that [nose job].

I wasn’t criticizing that choice; I was more criticizing the culture, and that comes in really big in this film in terms of leveraging your body for sex. If you learn at a young age that your body is where your value is, then it’s perfectly rational to leverage it for fame and fortune, just like Kim Kardashian. But what’s the consequence for all of us kind of getting dehumanized in the process?

I came to your work through the way you documented girlhood and body image in the 1990s and 2000s and its interesting because—maybe not in the most mainstream way—but there has been a commercial push in the last decade for body positivity. There’s a wider range of media maybe for girls to consume and there’s a lot more discussion about Photoshop. Do you think it’s made a difference at all?

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I did the viral spot Like a Girl, and I definitely think that those kind of images do make a difference. The part that I find problematic is the way there’s another push for girls to feel empowered through kind of exploiting their own bodies if they’re the ones making money from it, if they’re the ones in control. When girls sell their bodies and when they’re part of what we consume as capitalism it does have devastating consequences, most devastating for the girl involved, but also for the consumers. And for young people who are kind of learning their ideas of women and sexuality often from pornography. That part I have an issue with. But I do think that any time advertisers and magazines say we’re not gonna just show really skinny women and one body type, that’s helpful. I think people really like to see themselves, even just something as simple as having ethnic diversity with Disney princesses or with Barbies. It would be nice to not have to be a princess, but if you’re going to be a princess, be a diverse princess.

You’ve been documenting wealthy, famous people for so long and now a lot of these people are always documenting their own lives, sharing their lives, with social media and things like Instagram. How do you think social media has changed people’s perception of wealth or their proximity to wealth?

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I think what’s happened over the past 25 years is that instead of people comparing themselves to their neighbors, which is what people in my parents’ generation did, they compare themselves to the people they see on TV who they often feel like they know better than their own neighbors. That has created this completely unrealistic comparison but it also makes you want those things even more and that’s normal. And I think with social media...it’s like a collective FOMO—there’s always someone better to look like, a better party, a better brand, and I think kids have become unknowing accomplices to this as they pump different brands on their feeds.

I think the overall result is even bigger primacy on image over substance. It’s funny, [writer] Chris Hedges, who’s interviewed in the film, said—and this is not in the film, but it really resonated with me—he said that friendship has been hurt by social media, because friendship used to be breaking down of the presentation and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with your friends. And now our FaceBook form of friendship, our Snapchat form of friendship, is presentation. We have these curated selves and I think a lot of the insecurity that drives the pathologies in my movie come from not having a sense of self that is independent and rooted away from branding and material things.

The ways in which celebrities would once interact with the world are completely available to everyone today.

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To regular people!

Rather than their neighbors, you say people relate to people on TV. Something that I thought was interesting about your movie is that Donald Trump is such a subtext of Generation Wealth, but his presence doesn’t overpower the movie at all. When you were writing the project in general—the book, the movie—did his presidency change the way you saw your subjects?

I think it changed the movie, because I felt like he was the ultimate expression of so many of the things that I had been documenting and had been brewing and building in the culture. In a way, he was the proof of concept, or the ultimate expression of it, in a way that I can’t say I was happy about. It was kind of the tragedy of it, that it had reached government rather than just a huge popular culture influence.

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In thinking about what I wanted to say about it, I really felt like my contribution was to show the culture that made him possible, rather than turning it into a movie about him. I kind of felt like he could come and go, but we still needed to understand the disease that he was a symptom of. There’s a line in the film where he says, in a campaign rally, he says, “This isn’t about me, it’s about you.” And that’s what I wanted to leave with the audience—that he’s an expression of where our culture has come to. He may come and go, but we need to deal with that.