PRINT October 2017


Lauren Greenfield’s “Generation Wealth”

Lauren Greenfield, Adam, 13, and go-go dancer at bar mitzvah party at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub in West Hollywood, 1992, ink-jet print, 14 × 20".

THE CATALOGUE PUBLISHED on the occasion of the photographer and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s show “Generation Wealth,” which opened this past month at New York’s International Center of Photography, is a hefty doorstop of a thing, running to 504 pages and about seven pounds. With its cover a dull gold, as if to simulate burnished bullion, this brick-like book’s arm-straining audacity feels like both a come-on and an encumbrance: Its dazzlingly tactile materiality attracts while its sheer weight burdens. This duality also lies at the heart of the show the catalogue accompanies. The pull of consumer culture, Greenfield’s far-ranging project suggests, proves nearly impossible to resist, despite the many oppressions it calls forth.

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s—where she attended Santa Monica’s boho-wealthy Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences—Greenfield encountered early on the attractions as well as the dangers of excessive wealth: Many of her classmates were allowed, often to their own psychological and physical detriment, to live out their most materially self-indulgent dreams, enabled by apathetic Hollywood exec parents who were off selling similar fantasies to the larger viewing public. After college at Harvard, Greenfield shot briefly for National Geographic, but quickly realized there was room to do some anthropological work back at home. Returning to LA in 1991, she turned her camera lens to what she’s called “the influence of affluence”—a theme that has emerged, in the ensuing quarter century, as her oeuvre’s enduring focus.

The show, for which Greenfield culled photographs from these past twenty-five years of material, is arranged as a kind of lapsarian cycle. It begins with the early- to mid-’90s photos she took in LA, documenting the Reagan-inflected blossoming of a new strain of conspicuous consumption, which, with its barefaced, vulgar materialism and its reliance on cheap credit and rapidly constructed housing, marked a break from the postwar social world that preceded it, prizing unashamed acquisitiveness over Protestant work ethic. Employing a methodology that she would continue to use throughout her career, Greenfield approached her photography as a kind of fieldwork, not just taking pictures of her subjects but also interviewing them about their lives and, in particular, their attitudes toward consumerism.

The seductive pathologies of contemporary American culture are all already here in these early images, so presciently apt that the show even includes a photograph of pre-fame Kim and Kourtney Kardashian as fresh-faced tweens at a school dance in Bel Air. But even without reality television’s first family, it’s clear that Greenfield was able to put her finger on a phenomenon that then proceeded to spill over, avalanche-like, into multiple areas of modern life. The show’s layout advances according to that logic, too. From LA, where we get a picture of a boy at a bar mitzvah party wearing a Public Enemy T-shirt and cavorting with a go-go dancer (charmingly, in his interview: “For kids that can’t afford [an expensive bar mitzvah], I guess they are shit out of luck without a paddle”) and a post-op teen with a bandaged nose sitting by a pool (“My nose was a good $3,000 more than [my friend’s] breasts”), we go on to young girls’ obsessions with princess culture and beauty pageants; then the casual gruesomeness of antiaging cosmetic procedures; then outtakes from Greenfield’s sharp 2012 Sundance-winning documentary The Queen of Versailles, about the rise and fall of Orlando’s Jackie and David Siegel, who attempted to build the largest house in America; and then a segment on 2008’s financial crisis—where people both rich and poor lost much or all they had when the housing bubble burst. This is a fall that does not, however, lead to redemption. In a subsequent section, Greenfield pursues the specter of capitalism as it rises to haunt again, documenting the spread of fetishistic acquisitiveness beyond America into the arena of the global rich.

There is something inherently tricky about the idea of a themed project like Greenfield’s: One risks finding exactly what one was looking for to begin with. At moments, it seemed to me that “Generation Wealth” was close to falling prey to this self-fulfilling prophecy, gravitating toward the representation of subjects almost too on the nose. (In one suite of photographs, for instance, Greenfield captures the young and beautiful wife of a Russian oligarch, posing stone-faced in her impersonally palatial Moscow home, her unhappiness so palpable it practically screams “golden handcuffs”; or dressed in a blue-and-white sweater bearing the legend I’M A LUXURY.)

But what makes Greenfield’s photographs multilayered, sensitive, and fascinating—and carries them beyond a single-minded morality tale—is her understanding that people’s relationships with things in this lurid world are pleasurable and miserable both. Her shiny surfaces smooth over the brittleness of the desiring lives she captures in all their awkwardness and emptiness—but only just. Though clearly, she, too, is seduced. Don’t we all want to be the oligarch’s wife—with her lean thighs, smooth complexion, and opaque air—if just for a day?

But the rich do not emerge scot-free. Walking through the show, I was reminded of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), whose titular protagonist, a showgirl in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century, rises over the course of the novel from obscure penury to fame and riches through a series of decisions both cunning and lucky. At the end of the book, however, she is far from satisfied; she remains perennially, essentially wanting. “Amid the tinsel and shine of her state walked Carrie, unhappy,” Dreiser writes. “Generation Wealth” is not Sister Carrie: In Greenfield’s world, the good life, or at least the semblance of it, is infinitely more accessible—and infinitely more precarious—than it was in Dreiser’s time. But Greenfield’s animating question still echoes Dreiser’s: If we had what we’re craving, would our hearts finally gladden? Or would they continue to ever long? Greenfield’s pictures know: The more you have, the more you want; the more you want, the more you lose.

“Generation Wealth” is on view through Jan. 7, 2018.

Naomi Fry is a writer living in Brooklyn.