One of the first images in Emmy-winning filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield’s expansive monograph, Generation Wealth, is of a group of seventh graders at Crossroads School in Santa Monica waving around $100 bills. “If you are doing a story about growing up in L.A., you have to show money,” says one of the boys. Greenfield’s book is the inspiration for a new exhibit of the same name, her first solo show, at the Annenberg Space for Photography, running April 8 through Aug. 13. Greenfield's retrospective spans 25 years, and though that particular photograph was taken in 1992, it makes the alarming case that our culture’s obsession with money has only deepened over time. Worse, that obsession helped one of the biggest icons of wealth get elected as our country’s highest-ranking public servant.
The nearly 200 photographs in the display are accompanied by short films by Greenfield, as well as profile interviews. Greenfield spent eight years compiling the book, selecting more than 600 pictures out of half a million, many never before published, that range in date from 1992 to 2016 and organizing them into 14 thematic chapters.
After graduating from Harvard, Greenfield came back to L.A. in the early 1990s to document youth culture, including the rich students at her alma mater, Crossroads School, which counts as alumni Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson, Jack Black, Maya Rudolph, Jonah Hill, Zooey Deschanel and Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel. Growing up in Venice with parents who were professors, Greenfield says her family wasn’t as well-to-do as some of her classmates.
“It gave me a kind of perspective on wealth and the L.A. lifestyle that inspired me to come back and document that in my first work,” Greenfield says during a recent phone interview. “I was part of it and not part of it. I had an insider-outsider stance. I grew up with that feeling.”
Some of Greenfield’s earliest photographs show kids of talent agents riding to concerts in limos and partying at bar and bat mitzvahs held at studio backlots and the Whisky a Go Go, where go-go dancers, Madonna impersonators, even hypnotists are hired as entertainers. One shot looks inside a little girl’s bedroom that cost $40,000 to decorate. Another unused image narrows in on then-teenagers Kim and Kourtney Kardashian at a school dance in Bel-Air. Back then, they were merely the daughters of O.J. Simpson trial attorney Robert Kardashian. Now, thanks to reality TV, social media and a sex tape, the Kardashians are the personification of the kind of by-any-means-necessary celebrity Greenfield is trying to convey.
“That’s really the heart of this story,” Greenfield says. “That there’s been this seismic shift in our values. Materialism and celebrity have become much more important. If you ask kids now what they want to be when they grow up, they say they want to be rich and famous. Of course, that’s not a job. As Americans, we’ve gone from the ethic of frugality and hard work to bling and image over substance, and material wealth as a measure of success. You can become famous from a sex tape and become a mainstream star. That’s a badge of honor. Those values kind of culminated in the election of Donald Trump.”
Greenfield traces women’s love of name brands to little girls’ penchant for dressing up as princesses — or, as she writes in the book’s introduction, “the fairy-tale bill of goods” — whether it’s at Disneyland, beauty pageants, the prom or a quinceanera. Ironically, while these children are trying to mature faster, their parents are trying to look younger. Greenfield follows women at Botox parties and after they’ve had face lifts and chemical peels, her lens zooming in on their swollen, bandaged faces.
Judging by her photographs of how the other half lives in the other countries, though, Americans could learn a few things, especially from the Chinese or Russians. Greenfield shot a socialite in Hong Kong who named her dogs “Hedge” and “Fund.” She also goes inside an etiquette school in China that charges students $16,000 to learn the “skills of the wealthy.” In Hong Kong, there’s even a jewelry store that has a toilet made of 24-karat solid gold.
“I’m really interested in how we’ve exported our values,” Greenfield says. “China was one of the most surprising and interesting. They were so interested in branding and luxury, and this was a place that had leveled class in the [Cultural] Revolution.”
But as Greenfield writes in the book’s introduction, her photographs are not about the 1 percent but the aspiration to be the 1 percent, whether it’s a teacher in Mexico City who paid more than $1,000 for a Louis Vuitton bag, a homeless woman in Santa Monica carrying a knockoff one or Hollywood High School seniors who saved up for years for prom.
“What is in this book is the fictional representations of wealth,” Greenfield says. “It doesn’t matter if you have the money or success as long as you look like you do.”
Perhaps the biggest faces of greed in the book belong to the Siegels. Greenfield first photographed Jackie Siegel in 2007 at the Versace store in Beverly Hills. She spent the next several years filming Jackie and her husband, Florida time-share billionaire David, for her excellent 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles, which captured the couple attempting to build one of the largest mansions in America. But the 2008 recession severely damaged their business and lifestyle. (In a reversal of luck, the Siegels have since bounced back; in 2014, David purchased the former Las Vegas Hilton and is still constructing their mega house.) The film won best documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
“There’s a little bit of Jackie in all of us,” Greenfield says. “This addictive quality in consumerism — we don’t have it to the extent that she has it, but it’s in there somewhere.”
Greenfield chronicles examples of economic collapse all over the world, from home foreclosures in the Inland Empire to unemployment in Ireland to abandoned developments in Dubai, undoubtedly the fastest-growing real estate market in the world. She even profiles a few real-life Gordon Gekkos, toppled investment bankers and businessmen who went to prison for fraud or other crimes, including Germany’s Florian Homm, who’s on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and Jordan Belfort, who wrote The Wolf of Wall Street.
Though Greenfield calls her book a cautionary tale, she sees evidence of hope and epiphanies in some of her subjects, such as former Wall Street hedge-fund trader Sam Polk, who now runs Groceryships in L.A., a nonprofit that educates and provides nutritious meals to low-income families.
“If we continue down this road, there are devastating implications,” Greenfield warns. “It’s not sustainable for our communities, either environmentally or morally.”
“Generation Wealth,” Annenberg Space for Photography, 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City; April 8-Aug. 13. annenbergphotospace.org.