‘Generation Wealth’ Film Review: This Look at the American Rich Wanders in Too Many Directions

Lauren Greenfield’s follow-up to “The Queen of Versailles” dilutes its own premise with a lack of focus

Last Updated: July 19, 2018 @ 12:32 PM

Sex, fame, youth, body image: Wealth isn’t the only thing in Lauren Greenfield’s “Generation Wealth.” The “Queen of Versailles” director’s unwieldy follow-up continues her admitted obsession with the rich, looking at the subjects of 25 years of her photography work and where they are now, but also taking a glimpse at her own family life and what kind of example she’s giving her kids.

The latter’s connection to the purported topic is as stretched as a socialite’s face. Greenfield’s older son may be surprisingly reflective for a 15-year-old, but otherwise insights are in short supply whenever Mom turns the documentary inward. “You have a problem,” reads a sign that her younger son sticks in front of her camera. The problem? Documenting every moment of her family’s lives.

Greenfield accuses herself of being addicted to work, just like her subjects are addicted to money or another of the above-mentioned issues. And she meanders even further to include footage of a party for her 30th wedding anniversary, for example, or her kid confessing that he’s intimidated by his brother’s perfect ACT scores. To these scenes we say: Who cares?

“Generation Wealth” is most riveting when it focuses on what was likely the Los Angeles native’s initial interest: Tracking down the affluent L.A. high school students she profiled in her 1997 book, “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.” Photos of the likes of the adolescent Kate Hudson and Kim Kardashian fill the screen before the director sits down with a New Age-y woman who ran with the fast crowd as a student or a father who’d predicted he’d become a filthy-rich rapper but now just wants to instill in his children a good work ethic. It’s all gripping in the way reality television is; it’s hard to look away from pretty people and their privileged lifestyles.

But these interviews run counter to Greenfield’s assertion that in the past 25 years, Americans’ obsession with wealth has grown. (Perhaps our access to the wealthy has grown, e.g. channels and channels of reality TV versus the only elite-spying show in the late-’80s to mid-’90s, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”) She bridges her hopscotching with the also-shaky thesis that wealth includes not only cash, but also whatever gives us value.

Here’s where the film expands: Broaching body image, Greenfield includes footage of the doctors’ visits of women with eating disorders (with her voiceover the only audio) and interviews with women who “fix” themselves with butt lifts and breast augmentation. She tells of a teenager who cut herself because “she wanted to damage the property” and follows a porn star throughout the years who goes from a fame- and money-hungry spotlight seeker to an unadorned woman who wants to reclaim her original first name and identity.

Another woman talks of how her workaholic tendencies led to several rounds of IVF so she could get pregnant after 40; she then wanted a child “more than anything.” But even though there is a ton of social commentary inherent in these stories, their relation to wealth is, for the most part, tangential at best, ultimately confusing Greenfield’s narrative.

Lest you think that only women get attention here, there is a male banker who was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for securities fraud and bald-facedly claims, “I love money.” The underwhelming lesson he learns after going to prison is that money can’t buy you the important things in life. (Also: “If you give away money at no cost”  — e.g. subprime mortgages — “[people] are going to do stupid things with it.”)

As for Greenfield herself, she confronts her mother, who also worked a lot, as well as her son about the damage absentee parents can do to their relationships with their children. Again, this is no surprise, and it’s also unrelated to privilege. “Generation Wealth” is ultimately a string of subjects in search of a binder. And the director’s interests don’t count.