‘Generation Wealth’: A suitably overloaded look at lives of the super-rich

The grotesque spending of some of the world's wealthiest people comes with a heavy human price tag, finds photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield

Lauren Greenfield is a photographer and filmmaker who has spent nearly the last three decades chronicling the lifestyles of the super-rich, and those less privileged chasing dreams of fame and fortune. She has amassed boxes and boxes of film, and her latest documentary Generation Wealth charts her efforts to whittle down these thousands of images into a book and exhibition.

Appropriately enough given her fascination with material abundance, there’s such a teeming wealth of stuff here it’s often hard to get a handle on things. But from this loose, expansive, scattershot exploration of the distorting impact of turbo-charged consumerism on our psyches and our bodies, a few themes and subjects emerge. This is a film about – sharp intake of breath – the banking crisis, financial-service fraud, the rampant reach of pornography, reality TV, plastic surgery, workaholism and Kim Kardashian.

The overall impression of these vignettes of conspicuous consumption is unwieldy decadence

Running through the film are a series of interviews, carried out over the years, that Greenfield has filmed with several of the subjects of her photographs. Greenfield’s background is in anthropology, but after an unhappy experience doing field work in South America, she turned her focus to a subject closer to home: the rich students at the exclusive Santa Monica school she attended. Her photographs of this milieu, a blur of parties, frat-boy preening and minor Hollywood celebrity, are a time capsule of early 1990s LA decadence. Now in their 40s, some of these former students talk to Greenfield about this time with a quietly moving ruefulness, wise long after the fact.

But that’s tame stuff compared to the pockets of privilege Greenfield would go on to explore over the coming decades: a Chinese tycoon who has built a replica White House to live in; the bling-obsessed owner of the world’s longest limousine carrying 331lb of gold and diamonds round his neck and the couple who built a to-scale version of the Palace of Versailles in Florida (the stalled construction of which – thanks to the credit crunch – Greenfield documented in her 2012 film The Queen of Versailles).

The overall impression of these vignettes of conspicuous consumption is unwieldy decadence, a heady rush of excess against which the 2008 crash seems an inevitable corrective. Greenfield’s photographic eye is sharp – the glimpse of a stripper carting off plastic bags full of cash in Vegas brilliantly distils the skewed logic of those wild days – but she is also attentive to the human cost of unchecked materialism.

The overall impression of these vignettes of conspicuous consumption is unwieldy decadence, a heady rush of excess against which the 2008 crash seems an inevitable corrective

The interviews with Kacey Jordan, for instance, a porn star whose dalliance with Charlie Sheen was briefly tabloid fodder, are heartbreaking. From minor celebrity to suicide attempts in pursuit of more fame, our obsessions with status and sex combine to form a desperately sad emblem of our age.

Greenfield also turns her camera on herself and her family, to suggest that far from being an impartial observer of the distorting desires of her myriad subjects she is also complicit. I’m not convinced her workaholism is quite the same order of addictive behaviour as, say, the obsession with money that the hedge-funder manager she interviews admits to (at one point he described the almost erotic charge of stuffing €100 notes up his Calvin Klein underwear). But her family offer a more grounded perspective to the extreme displays of greed elsewhere. Her teenage son is especially cool – I liked his reference to surveying his friends’ Instagram feeds to determine that sexy selfies got more likes than sober family snaps. Clearly he’s an anthropological chip off his mother’s block.

Generation Wealth is a film that sprawls with ideas and provocations and while a few don’t persuade or land with conviction, many more do. This is a poignant, insightful and worrying dispatch of the state things today.

Generation Wealth is in cinemas from July 20