I don’t know a lot about photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles), but it’s not particularly necessary to know much ahead of Generation Wealth, a self-celebratory doc designed to reflect on her life’s work and, more importantly, promote her book. She attempts to fit all of that past work under the thematic umbrella of “wealth” here, but for several of her subjects, there is a fair amount of shoehorning.
The doc, which bounces all over the place, begins by going back to one of Greenfield’s original subjects: Students at a wealthy Beverly Hills high school back in the 1990s, where we see pictures of 12-year-old Kim Kardashian, the son of a musician in REO Speedwagon, an aspiring rapper, a popular girl, and some dudebros. That, in and of itself, is only marginally interesting, but she returns to the same subjects 25 or 30 years later to find out what happened with them and their quest for status. With the exception of Kardashian (who she does not revisit), they mostly seem cherry-picked to reflect a sort of downward mobility, as though their efforts to find meaning in money all backfired spectacularly.
She also revisits the subjects in her Queen of Versailles documentary (they lost the house); a woman who went into debt to afford plastic surgery and now lives in her car; a woman so obsessed with both her work and her personal appearance that she nearly missed her window to have a child; a hedge fund manager living in Germany after escaping charges on fraud; a porn star who received a five-figure tip from Charlie Sheen, was bukakke’d by over 50 men, recorded her suicide attempt on social media, and now works a minimum wage job; and also Eden Wood, who some may remember from Toddlers and Tiaras (after her career as a pageant contestant bottomed out, she’s returned to a fairly normal life in podunk Arkansas).
In addition to her past and present subjects, Greenfield also turns the camera on herself (again, with mixed results) to examine how her exposure to wealth and excess in her subjects has affected her (all things considered, not that much: She has a great husband/business partner, and terrific kids).
The documentary (which Amazon will release into theaters in July) is intermittently fascinating, but its thesis is flawed. It tries to suggest that Greenfield’s subjects are representative of the American mentality that we’re all aspiring for wealth and status, and that it is our ruination as a country. In simpler times, perhaps, a case like that could be made more convincingly, but tribalism and identity politics are a much larger concern in 2018, and Generation Wealth thus feels dated.
However, there is another overriding and welcome theme in the doc, and that is that our collective drive toward success often robs us of what matters the most: our family, friends, and loved ones. She uses her own family as the main case study. She’s clearly had a successful career, and based on the behavior of her kids, she’s obviously an excellent mom, but it’s interesting to see how she strikes that balance. That examination is not as outwardly attention-grabbing, but it’s the aspect of the documentary that struck me as the most fascinating.