Lauren Greenfield's reflection on the excesses of wealth is one of the most vulgar, sickening and deeply thought-provoking films you'll see all year.

Lauren Greenfield has spent her career photographing the rich and famous. Following a trip to photograph the Philippines that National Geographic promptly killed, Greenfield went to Los Angeles to photograph the kids of the wealthiest people in America, with a focus on teenage girls at the turn of the 21st century. Her earliest photos include images of a young Kim Kardashian, a boastful, teenage Kate Hudson, and a host of other pampered children of CEOs.

Generation Wealth Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian (left) photographed by Lauren Greenfield in 1992, when she was just 12 years old. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/Generation Wealth.

Greenfield’s documentary accompanies an exhibition and book that make up her life’s work, documenting the excesses of wealth. In it, she asks, are we in the last days of civilisation? In the vein of Rome, Egypt and the Tzars of Russia, she touts the idea that civilisations fall when they are at their most prosperous, when wealth becomes sumptuous, when excess and luxury dominates all other basic human needs in a society. The desire for wealth, she contends, is most prevalent often in societies that portend to have abolished class or monarchical systems of government. It’s here that she ultimately believes we are in 2018, following a change in societal values in the 1970s when the US abandoned the gold standard and began equating money with the American Dream.

Lauren Greenfield Generation Wealth Florian Homm

The real Wolf of Wall Street. German businessman Florian Homm, now exiled in Germany. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/Generation Wealth.

Florian Homm was a former investment banker charged with fraud and placed on the USA’s most wanted list before disappearing to Italy in 2013 where he faced only a 15 month prison sentence before being freed. He bought his son a prostitute on his sixteenth birthday during a trip to Amsterdam. “I couldn’t let him pay for it,” he says. His son’s girlfriend’s facial expressions as he recounts this story make for the funniest moments in the film. Homm is arguably an even worse parent than the one who bought his son strippers for his 13th birthday, or the mother who takes her son out on the ‘family business’ in Las Vegas strip clubs.

Towards the end, Generation Wealth takes a surprisingly emotional toll. Watching Homm cry as he recalls his wife asking for him to turn his phone off and have dinner with her rather than buy her a yacht for her birthday, is bittersweet. It’s hard to feel emotional for a man as vulgar as Homm, yet at the same time his reflections on the way he spent his life, including an affair, are in some strange way touching. 

Generation Wealth

Mijanou, voted the girl with the best body at Beverly Hills High School. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/Generation Wealth

Mijanou (above) was voted ‘best body’ at Beverly Hills High School. In an interview with her fellow male passengers, the now middle-aged men discuss her ‘rack’ and then how they hope the interview will be cut because they don’t want it to reflect badly upon them. The rest was, thankfully perhaps. Greenfield also turns her lens to former porn actress of Charlie Sheen fame, Kacey Jordan, who once did a 58 man bukkake scene. She had around a dozen miscarriages, attempted suicide a number of times, and worked only through taking copious amounts of painkillers to numb the pain caused as a result of the damage done to her body through her work. Kacey is now living on a mattress working in the same job she did as a teenager, before she made her millions (which she then lost) in adult films.

Lauren Greenfield/Generation Wealth.

Eden Wood, aged six from Toddlers and Tiaras. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/Generation Wealth.

Ultimately the major takeaway from Greenfield’s excellent film, which to the credit of Amazon is superbly edited if a little too long, is quite how ‘pornified’ our culture has become, and how for both men and women, sex is the ultimate commodity. From the individuals throwing hundred dollar bills at strippers at Atlanta’s Magic City club, to Limo Bob (so called because he owned the world’s longest limousine), who professes to be inspired by classical elegance but who ultimately looks more like if Pitbull raided Mr T’s jewellery box, money is a means to an end. That end is, most of the time, women and power. When Greenfield reflects that wealth has made human beings more overtly sexualised, she ultimately means just one half of the population. Women, she reflects, have learnt that their bodies are a commodity to be bought and sold.

Limo Bob holds the record for owning the longest limousine in the world. He also has a limo-cum-Boeing 727. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/Generation Wealth

Limo Bob holds the record for owning the longest limousine in the world. He also has a limo-cum-Boeing 727. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/Generation Wealth

Thankfully, six year old Eden Wood, of Toddlers and Tiaras fame, has left her life of dressing up as a baby go-go dancer behind her. Now safely away from the excesses and proto-paedophillic child beauty pageant world, her mother contends that she’d do it all again, but sitting proudly in front of a cabinet of trophies, she’s come to a realisation that there are more important things in the world. Maybe the money dried up when her daughter wasn’t a cute toddler any more?

Greenfield’s reflections on her own life and addictions make for interesting viewing, but probably could have been cut down a little. Her relationship with her family, and in particular her fixing of her camera’s lens on her two sons, goes some way to explaining her own addiction to wealth, if in another form. It’s as much a film about her as it is about almost anyone else.

The film is perhaps most touching when it returns to the people whom it introduced us to at the start, the teenagers photographed living a life of luxury. Most of them have either lost it all and are living modest lives reminiscing about the past, but more often have changed tack completely and are living far happier, freer lives. One of them, a former rapper who filmed a music video in which his nails are filed by a scantily clad woman as he counts his dollars, laughs as he watches back his video, and wells up as he talks about his daughter getting into Cornell University.

The major flaw, if there is one, in Generation Wealth is the failure to acknowledge that obsession with wealth and privilege isn’t new at all. History shows us that for thousands of years, human beings have craved that with which they associate power. An addiction to money is nothing new, it’s just accessible to more people these days with the easy accessibility of money-making schemes via social and new media, less hierarchical modes of governance, and better education. It hasn’t worsened as an international epidemic, the rules have just changed. Ultimately, with a bigger world, there’s more money to have and more people to show it off to. Like Lauren says, no matter how much you have, you’ll always want more.

★★★★★

Generation Wealth is showing as part of Sundance London.