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Review: Generation Wealth

July 27, 2018

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

A disappointingly shallow followup of sorts to her excellent 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth finds photographer and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield painting a much broader portrait of the destruction that can be caused by affluence and greed in modern society.

The film serves as a companion piece to Greenfield’s glossy coffee table book of the same name – which has a hefty Canadian list price of close to a hundred dollars, making it quite ironically the sort of thing that only super rich people would buy – and functions as a sprawling look at the lifestyles of a variety of different people who were either raised rich or have come into money.

Some of the subjects featured here include the unscrupulous German hedge fund manager Florian Homm, whose young adult son is also interviewed separately; the porn star Kacey Jordan, whose claim to fame is being Charlie Sheen’s ex-girlfriend and is now trying to make more of a name for herself separate from him; as well as the owner of an Atlanta, Georgia strip club where the strippers are treated like local celebrities.

We are also introduced to a businesswoman pushing forty who gets frequent botox injections in an attempt to keep herself looking young, and is now trying desperately to have a baby after holding off for so long to focus on building her career and making money; as well as a middle class bus driver whose obsession with getting expensive plastic surgeries in Brazil led to tragic results in her own life; and a young girl from a small town in Arkansas whose mother has gotten her into those creepy child beauty pageants after appearing on Toddlers and Tiaras.

The film functions as a sort of career retrospective for Greenfield, as she catches up with some of the same subjects from her 1997 photo book Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, many of whom went to the same private Los Angeles high school as her, as well as touching on the same body image issues that were present in her 2006 film debut Thin, which focused on anorexia. There is an introspective element to it as well, as the filmmaker examines her own privileged life and upbringing, interviewing both her parents as well as her two sons, who talk about how their mother’s busy work schedule and constant travelling have affected their own lives.

If all of this sounds sprawling and all over the place, that’s because it largely is, and Generation Wealth misses its mark in an almost shocking way. The film’s simplistic and unfocused approach is especially disappointing after the success of The Queen of Versailles, which worked as a fascinating study of the ridiculously extravagant lifestyle that is enjoyed by timeshare mogul David Siegel and his much younger wife Jackie, whose story is briefly updated here.

The greatest sin of Generation Wealth is that it attempts to criticize the affluence of the disgustingly rich, yet the documentary itself feels shallow, and comes across as little more than a self-aggrandizing vanity project. The film is, I suppose, attempting to say something profound about wealth not being the only road to a fulfilling life, but it’s hard to glean any sort of meaningful message from it, and instead I just felt kind of gross while watching it.

There’s a huge difference between having money and being tacky, and many of these subjects fall into the latter category, which in and of itself makes the film somewhat unpleasant to watch. For the most part, Generation Wealth functions as little more than an overly glossy look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and without much of a clear message beyond the obvious “money doesn’t equal happiness,” it’s easy to imagine the more critical aspects of it being lost on audiences who view the film in a more aspirational way.

The film’s main argument is that the American Dream of owning a home and having a family that came about in the post-war 1950s morphed into a sort of ugly caricature of itself throughout the more affluent 1980s, pushing people to constantly pursue bigger and bigger lives by any means necessary, instead of just being satisfied with enough. These unrealistic expectations are pushed by popular culture, which glamourizes excess through reality TV shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and gives people unhealthy goals both in terms of lifestyle and body image.

There is a sort of “End of Rome” feel running through it, but the film doesn’t really have much of anything new or substantial to say. While it does an alright job of addressing some of the problems plaguing society – from an overly consumeristic culture that views designer clothes and handbags as symbols of status, to the unrealistic views of sex and the commodification of human bodies that are perpetrated through the porn industry – it’s much less equipped at actually coming up with solutions, besides just vaguely pointing the finger at capitalism as the root of all evil.

It’s easy to blame “capitalism” for the greed in society and other social ills, and I’m not saying it isn’t a contributing factor in some areas, but it’s also much harder to actually come up with a system that would work better. Because short of forcibly redistributing wealth, taking away private property rights, and allowing the government to control the means of production, which had disastrous results whenever it was attempted throughout the 20th century, it’s not clear what the solution would be, and the trouble is that this film seems to have no clue either.

For example, the film vaguely criticizes the growing affluence of China, which has become one of the largest importers of luxury brands, but clearly the country was not doing better when it was being run under communist rule. There is no mention of the fact that capitalism, while clearly not a perfect system in and of itself, has also lifted millions of people out of poverty and into a more modest way of life, and formerly socialist nations such as China have only been able to ensure any sort of prosperity for their citizens after bringing in a market economy and allowing for more free enterprise.

As an indictment of capitalism, Generation Wealth feels wholly incomplete, because it fails to also point out the inherent problems of government greed that exist within the systems put forth by Marx, Lenin and Mao, which many would think of as the natural alternatives to a capitalist system. I would argue that unchecked corporatism and the creation of monopolies are more of a problem than capitalism itself, but the film seems disinterested in making these distinctions. What it does instead is focus on a variety of people who have accrued money and have made bad decisions with it, using this as a justification for its argument as to why the system itself is bad.

The film feels somewhat ironically guilty of its own sort of elitism, and this hypocrisy becomes apparent in the final scenes when Greenfield travels to the Philippines to oversee the printing of her book, taking advantage of the cheap cost of production that outsourcing to another country allows. It culminates with her throwing a glitzy launch party for her expensive book at a trendy art gallery, and it’s hard not to see the hypocritical nature of her criticizing a system that she is clearly taking advantage of and benefitting from in her own life.

At this point, the irony of Greenfield wagging her finger at capitalism and the commodification of people’s bodies becomes especially hard to swallow, considering that we are essentially watching her take advantage of the free market in order to commercialize the images and stories of these individuals in order to make a buck. No, I’m not saying there’s necessarily anything wrong with what she is doing, but it seems dishonest and is a strange way to end the film, leaving us with the feeling that we have merely been watching an extended tie-in for her overpriced book.

It’s in these moments that Generation Wealth becomes particularly off-putting, offering an example of champagne socialism at its most hypocritical and glaringly obvious. The trouble with the film is that it essentially amounts to a bunch of little human interest stories about how people’s lives have been ruined by greed, some of which can be interesting on an individual basis, but it fails at saying something deeper than that. For a documentary that purports to galvanize affluence and excess, the film feels overstuffed and is itself guilty of being only surface deep.

Generation Wealth is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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