Photographer Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth resembles base aspirational coffee-table fare. The book is bound in silky golden fabric, its spine like an ingot. On the front and back covers are pictures of luxury served up a variety of ways: an oligarch’s family; a rap star’s diamond-encrusted grills; gilt purses slung low on trophy wives’ toned arms.
But like fool’s gold, appearances can be deceiving. The monograph is a fiery tract on greed, collecting over 500 pages of portraits and interviews from Greenfield’s twenty-five-year study of what she calls “the influence of affluence,” or how our cultural obsession with money and status informs our behavior. Her subjects include celebrities and one-percenters, but most are normal people trying (and usually, failing) to live large. These are cautionary tales, not fairy tales.
The book opens with images from Fast Forward, her series on 1990s youth culture in her native Los Angeles. There, she found common ground in “a shared love of Versace” among the city’s wealthiest and poorest teens. Later sections, organized by theme and loose chronology, build on this early identification of a new era in American materialism, giving illustration to a paradigm shift described in several of the included essays, namely, that America has transitioned from a society of production into one of reckless, outsized consumption.
Greenfield was there to capture the excess of the halcyon 1990s and early 2000s, then turned her eye toward the devastation that resulted after the financial crisis. This boom and bust is perhaps best personified in two of her subjects: timeshare tycoon David Siegel and his third wife, Jackie, also the focus of her 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles.
David made his fortune selling low-income families— Walmart shoppers and Johnny Lunchbuckets, as David’s son puts it—on the fantasy of “vacation[ing] like Rockefellers.” But when the banks failed so did David’s business, built on a precarious scaffolding of mortgages and loans. And in 2008, Greenfield watched as he was forced to downsize his company and put his dream home—a 90,000-square-foot behemoth modeled on France’s Versailles Palace—up for sale.
Theirs is but one of many lost or foreclosed-upon homes captured in Generation Wealth. In the planned communities of Southern California, we see the swimming pools of abandoned McMansions grow swamp green. Formerly manicured front lawns desiccate. A woman named Pamela, residing in Los Angeles, discusses losing the thirteen investment properties she once owned in St. Louis: “Now I live in Venice in a little, tiny room. It’s 160 square feet. That’s literally how big my closet was, or one of my bathrooms.”
The false prosperity of the early 2000s drove others around the world into bankruptcy, too, with Iceland and Ireland hit particularly hard. Greenfield visits these countries to report on their stories of loss and, in the case Iceland, redemption; she also travels to Russia and China, two countries whose rapidly growing upper middle classes hunger after luxuries denied under previous regimes. In Russia, high-society balls evoke the bygone imperial era; in China, the Nouveaux riche learn to play golf, a sport officially banned by the Party as a millionaire’s game.
As sociologist Juliet Schor observes in the book’s foreward, we no longer measure our success against our neighbors but instead against the rich, famous, and famous-for-being-rich, as exemplified by the Kardashians, who, Schor writes, “dared the country to ‘keep up with them.’”
Vacationing like Rockefellers, living like Kardashians. This is the American Dream 2.0, which has a vice grip not only on this country but on all places to which the dream of U.S.- style affluence has been branded and exported.
For the vast majority of us, real- izing this lifestyle is impossible— ever more so as income gaps grow. Yet we keep trying, stuck on what author Chris Hedges, another of Greenfield’s subjects, calls a “tread- mill of unhappiness.” Greenfield follows baby boomers as they un- dergo agonizing, costly procedures in pursuit of ageless cele-beauty and films twenty-something men as they squander their monthly earnings to play macho and “make it rain” dollar bills on strip club dancers. She visits eating disorder clinics and talks with preteen girls at weight-loss summer camp who practice “seductive dancing” in their cabins as a way to burn calories.
Greenfield is a universally astute and empathetic observer but is especially well attuned to the plight of women, in particular to how mass culture encourages women to com- modify their bodies. Brooke Taylor, a former social worker turned legal prostitute (or, in her words, “ho-fessional”) spins her good looks into cold hard cash. Elsewhere are col- lege spring-breakers competing in wet t-shirt contests and slamming beers in bikinis, toddler beauty queens, Disney Princess wannabes, and girls like Sheena, a fifteen-year-old mallrat who pushes up her cleavage and tells Greenfield, “I want to become a topless dancer or a show-girl, dancing with my tits showing off…If I can accomplish that, then I can accomplish anything.” Tiffany Masters, a Las Vegas nightlife queen and VIP event planner photographed among a throng of tanned women, echoes this concept of female sex-powerment. “If you’ve got the girls, you’ve got the game,” she says.
Are Sheena and Tiffany’s perspectives—expressed in 1999 and 2010, respectively—so different from “grab them by the pussy,” the Trumpian belief that status and stardom entitle you to (nonconsensual) sex? Or are they just inversions of the same, sad formula? It is impossible not to think of Trump while reading Generation Wealth, despite the fact that his rise is but one symptom of a now decades-long, far-reaching obsession with showiness and self-promotion. American infatuation with fortune, fame, and female beauty seems only to be rising. And while political analysts may still express shock and dismay at our current civic reality, Greenfield—photographer-anthropologist, scholar of vanity, materialism, and its engrained forms of sexism—must have seen it coming from miles away. She treats her subjects as individuals, but her work derives its greatest power from its ability to succinctly and enthrallingly chart a larger national story. All that glitters is not gold.