The "generation" in question in Lauren Greenfield's Generation Wealth is her own – Generation X. The film is concerned with her generation's 1980s-born obsession with wealth and that obsession's effect on their children today. After graduating high school in the mid-1980s, Greenfield attended Harvard and began a career as a photojournalist. Much of her work has been chronicling the lives of the world's super rich, from the children of movie and rock stars in her native Los Angeles to the nouveaux riche of post-revolution China and post-Communism Russia. (You may know Greenfield from her previous documentary, the curious The Queen of Versailles, about a couple attempting to build the largest house in America.)
Because her interest is wealth itself and not just wealthy people, she has also captured the lives of people who want to be wealthy or, if they can't accomplish that, who want to appear to be wealthy. Greenfield has taken millions of photos and recorded thousands of hours of interview footage with all these people. Generation Wealth is a career retrospective of sorts, in which Greenfield checks back in with her more interesting subjects to see where they are now and how they feel about where they were when Greenfield first encountered them.
Her subjects are eccentric. Many of them have gone to extraordinary lengths to become or to appear to be rich. Narrating the film, Greenfield says, "I look at the extremes to get at the mainstream." She believes that these people are exceptional only in their efforts, not in their desires. She suggests they have simply metastasized the inherent defect of their culture more acutely than most. The temptation in observing outlandish people is to "other" them, to see them as inherently different than you. Greenfield wants to do the opposite. She wants us to see how we are like them, so that we may reconsider our own selfish pursuits.
Greenfield takes her own advice. Generation Wealth is as much career introspective as it is retrospective. She may not have pursued money to the detriment of her relationships like most of her subjects, but she has pursued her career with a similar abandon and left her family behind for long stretches of time to do so. In it's final third, her film shifts from an indictment of wealth to an indictment of anything that we chase at the expense of our relationships. This isn't contrived. It emerges from her interviews as, one-by-one, each of her subjects laments the loves they have lost or neglected chasing what they think will give them worth.
Generation Wealth's introspective turn is effective. It's like the film holds your hand and gently leads you into asking yourself how the culture of consumerism is affecting you and your family. Since Greenfield's greater purpose to abate what she reckons as the imminent collapse of the global society, she needs everyone watching to consider their own lives. The culture is what we all make of it, and the culture of greed will only change when we all begin to most highly value our relationships with each other instead of constantly reckoning what others might be worth.
-- Elijah Davidson