Documentarian Lauren Greenfield Shows Her Rich Heart in ‘Generation Wealth’

Sundance 2018: Seeking answers to her own obsessive chronicling of wealth, Greenfield turns the camera on herself to ask if perhaps she is a slave to excess of a different kind

"Generation Wealth" Sundance 2018

I first took an interest in Lauren Greenfield’s work when I moved to Los Angeles from Europe 20 years ago. Her book, “Fast Forward,” was a vision of everything I feared about raising children in the soulless, culture-free, morally vacuous City of Angels. I interviewed her then for The Washington Post with the barely-veiled terror of a mother of toddlers facing future bar mitzvahs on studio lots (not ours).

That made Greenfield’s new documentary, “Generation Wealth,” which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival, particularly fascinating. The photographer’s journey comes full circle as she goes back to seek out the pampered, celebrity high school subjects she photographed for that 1997 book, along with many others, to learn how their lives unfolded from the money-and-fame-obsessed culture of their years at Crossroads, the exclusive private school. (Where of course I ended up sending my own children #karma.)

The girl who was homecoming queen and voted “best body” has retreated to a bucolic rural setting where her own daughter is not allowed to watch television. The rebellious, drugged out son of the REO Speedwagon singer has found a path to domestic harmony as a working class dad. And in one of the film’s least convincing storylines, a German hedge fund manager – long wanted by the FBI for fraud – comes to embrace more simple mores.

Greenfield asks in the film, as she has through her photography and films like “The Queen of Versailles,”  why our society has come to embrace the hollow values of excess and celebrity over more traditional values of hard work, discipline and simple human connection.

The film works best when it preaches least, and that happens when Greenfield turns the camera on herself to ask if perhaps she is also a slave to excess of a different kind: her own work. We watch her sifting through years – mountains – of photographs and weighing the work, while she recounts the unlikely narrative of her own overachieving family, based in Venice, California and asks: is it all too much?

The evidence: Greenfield’s mother was a Harvard doctorate researcher of sociology, her father – also a Harvard graduate – a doting father and doctor. Greenfield went to Harvard as did her supportive producer husband Frank Evers. Greenfield interviews her parents as well as her two sons, aged 15 and 8, and the film’s most emotional moment comes when her son Noah lets slip that his mother leaving so frequently to pursue her work projects left a scar – “but the damage is done.”

It all makes more sense when Greenfield explained during the q&a after the film that “We found the film in the edit room” over 30 months. She added: “It was a very organic, challenging, scary process.” Yes, telling the truth can be scary.

The film is disjointed in many respects and veers into annoying when journalist Chris Hedges insists on painting an apocalyptic vision of the American empire – the Greek chorus inserted at regular intervals – and rapacious capitalism.

At this point, decades past the “greed is good” ’80s and deep into the administration of our billionaire president, that shift and its consequences may seem obvious. By contrast, Greenfield’s willingness to show her own vulnerabilities – such as they are for a workaholic bent on chronicling the decline of western civilization – gives the film its heart.

“Generation Wealth” was acquired by Amazon and Magnolia.