Once again the SXSW Film Festival 2018 encompassed what one would imagine, along with a few surprises. Amazingly, in its 25th edition the festival included 136 feature films, with 89 world premieres, 13 North American premieres, six U.S. premieres, and 49 feature films from first-time filmmakers. The slate also included 171 short films, music videos, independent episodics, title sequences, and virtual reality projects. So many films, so little time!
Documentary films always draw fans to SXSW. Most of the ones I viewed informed, persuaded, entertained. In Generation Wealth, director/screenwriter Lauren Greenfield (Queen of Versailles) examines how American cultural perspectives and values about wealth and appearance toxified into their current twisted iterations. Her fascinating account attempts to be both a historical, photographic portrait of hedonistic social decline and a personal memoir.
Film is the third medium, after writing and photography, that Greenfield has used to explore the pursuit of wealth’s deleterious impact on our culture. Upon the move from the gold standard, which backed our money supply in 1971, to fiat money, a production economy shifted to a consumer economy. Debt and excess became limitless.
Greenfield suggests that this economic changeover has contributed to economic boom-and-bust cycles. Inevitably, there is the insatiable drive for more, for bigger corporate profits, for better consumer goods (e.g. iPhones), fueled by advertising. In a culture of excess, “enough” is a dirty word!
Greenfield shows how many individuals become swept up in the illusion that they can have a luxurious lifestyle, beauty, youth, success, and status regardless of their middle or lower middle class circumstances. In a strange morphology, sex and the pursuit of a youthful look have also become integral to the lifestyle of privilege. However, there are ironic, nihilistic results. As many pursue their hedonistic dreams with abandon, they feel emptiness and depression. In fact the pursuit of surfeit breeds unhappiness. Regardless of whether individuals become successful and rich, and sometimes because of wealth, problems abound.
But until the “bust” of the boom-and-bust cycle, pleasure seekers are blind to their condition. They don’t recognize that their material lasciviousness bleeds the soul and psyche. With guided, well-crafted commentary Greenfield describes how the materialism that consumerism perpetuates insidiously destroys. Unless something happens to stop individuals’ rat-wheel running after “more,” they annihilate their own dreams and often themselves.
Like Greenfield’s book/monograph and photographic exhibition, this documentary takes a retrospective look over the last 25 years to prove her points about the hazards of excess and the inhumanity engendered through worshiping the golden calf. In a mosaic of gyrating shots Greenfield introduces herself and her family so that we understand her history. Significantly, she went to school in the shadows of Hollywood and the proliferation of porn and privilege in the Kate Hudson and Kim Kardashian generation. Superficiality and self-indulgence reigned. Opulent, artificial beauty and decadent over-consumption for its own profligate sake became goals in themselves.
From past to present, Greenfield widens her scope to indicate how these meretricious cultural values went global, e.g. to Dubai and China. We view her travels chronicling the effects of wealth. At the same time she shows how such mores relate to her. We become acquainted with her personal journey into family and motherhood. She includes brief interviews with her own parents and children, and other subjects whom she becomes acquainted with over the years. As she progresses through the decades with flashbacks and fast-forwards, we can examine her cogent perspective. Central to her study she examines the nouveau riche.
Greenfield’s most interesting subjects are average individuals, some of whom we may identify with, who have achieved newly minted wealth or celebrity. She does not cover the dynastic wealthy, a completely different breed of elite animal. Theirs is a secretive world inhabited only by those of the same class. Greenfield does not broach the subject of class nor breach it. This is a major, somewhat misleading weak point of the film. She views only those who become damaged by an intemperate pursuit of “more” that ultimately weakens their personal power and confidence.
Any nobility possibly associated with wealth becomes discounted and demeaned. Her focus is perhaps tendentious, displaying only individuals who abide in licentious excess. In reality, there are others who have gained wealth and have not been destroyed by it. Greenfield makes no reference to them. Perhaps she should have made some socioeconomic distinctions to clarify what she is examining.
Some of the subjects Greenfield exposes for their egregious self-damage are mesmerizing. Florian, a German hedge fund manager, speaks with exuberant arrogance about his former lifestyle. When his wealth crashes, he speaks with misery about his imprisonment for fraud and his eventual release. These dark times ended but he is exiled from the U.S. for fraud, a vast disappointment for him. Florian’s son discusses how the impact of his financial demise may have changed him for the better. Perhaps Florian has learned – but it remains to be seen.
Another subject, a former porn star who achieved celebrity and was Charlie Sheen’s girlfriend, faces severe depression and discusses her suicidal behavior. Afterward, she recoups and attempts to change her physical identity to escape her persona, with unsatisfactory results. Transformation of one’s psyche and emotions requires confronting inner pain. Sometimes, it’s easier to pursue the superficial, but eventually, the pain catches up with one regardless. She, too, is a soul in transition moving on from the illusions of wealth and celebrity.
Another subject is six-year-old star Eden Wood, of Toddlers and Tiaras. We see clips of Wood in her arc from celebrity to fading star. Perhaps of all Greenfield’s subjects, Wood and her mother best symbolize the treachery of seeking celebrity and riches without careful consideration and self-examination.
But in all of them we note a lack of profound meaning in their lives. With little to feed their souls, their pursuit of materialism sustains nothing but unhappiness.
At times we become enthralled by how the glitterati become ensnared. Yet we ask: Are our values the same as these individuals’? Do we want too much, unable to understand what we truly want? It’s a facile reassurance to hear that “money can’t buy love or health.” Too easily we may snap this up and agree, but the situation of each of Greenfield’s subjects remains extremely complicated. Wisdom suggests we do not criticize or judge anyone here.
Spotlighting obsessives who must have the latest Birkin bag, million-dollar yacht, or gold toilet, Greenfield smacks down the result of such pursuits. Ultimately, the individuals she examines reveal an abyss in their souls that nothing can satisfy or fulfill. No amount of wealth, no amount of status, no amount of gorgeous regalia can overcome a sorrowing heart. Nor can they steel the ragged emotions of grief, or answer questions of mortality from which, perhaps, all of these individuals run.
Against this ultimate theme Greenfield focuses on how the culture has perceived wealth over the past quarter-century. She includes thousands of photographs and films she took during her travels, and records herself and her family, including her children, gauging their perspectives and revealing the extent to which the conspicuous-consumption culture has impacted them.
All of these observations she weaves into a film overladen with narrative and pithy commentary. The result is an intriguing and pointed revelation of the shifting socioeconomic plates of excess – the peaks and valleys, the depression, the highs and lows. Ultimately, the culture experiences strain and pressure on its ethos. Inevitably, individuals become forced to ask themselves what are they willing to live and die for. If the answer centers on status and monetary success, oftentimes the sacrifice becomes untenable. Psychic and emotional misery overwhelms. In fact Greenfield shows parallels between our society in decline and those of ancient Rome and Egypt.
Essentially, this chronicle reveals the perils of those who have fallen into the trap of pursuing wealth and status to free themselves and gain worth. It is a zero sum game. They achieve what they can from the journey, but receive little real sustenance. Thus in the end this story becomes a morality tale, a siren song for the nouveau riche. As for the elusive dynastic wealthy, seven generations removed? Too bad they are not in her record.