What Happens When The Culture of Excess Becomes the Culture of Us All?
Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, Generation Wealth, is a harrowing look at the culture of excess, beginning in the late 1980s and winding it’s way through a global panorama including the most recent US presidential election.
Greenfield realized a few years ago that her twenty plus year career as a photojournalist and documentarian had always managed to keep one singular focus: excess. The kind of excess that leads us to hoard money, drape ourselves in gold and diamonds, allow surgeons to remake our bodies, and crave fame over nearly anything, including our families, and our very freedom.
Using a series of interviews with everyone from a single mother who renders herself and her children homeless by borrowing money for extensive plastic surgery in Brazil, to the disgraced former hedge fund manager Florian Homm, Greenfield shows what at first seems to be a disparate collection of behaviors: drug use, pornography, plastic surgery, body dysmorphia, workaholism, misogyny, child neglect, financial fraud, and even an obsession with designer handbags. But slowly, over the course of the film, it becomes apparent that these all stem from the same despairing origins — capitalism run rampant, human beings — as Snoop Dogg might say — gone wild.
But Greenfield isn’t the typical chronicler of this excess as she tells us from the beginning of the film — she was raised in it. The daughter of a workaholic college professor mother who virtually abandoned Greenfield and her brother when they were five and seven, and an MD father who was left to raise them alone, Greenfield grew up in the Los Angeles of the 1980s where greed and consumerism blossomed like reality stars would a decade later. She herself is an admitted workaholic, and while she’s improved on her mother’s record as a parent, the film isn’t shy about showing her two sons’ thoughts regarding the time she’s spent working versus the time she’s spent home with them.
The film bounces between the micro and the macro of excess, introducing a porn star who was associated with Charlie Sheen and once had fifty-eight men ejaculate on her face onscreen, then switching to observations from Chris Hedges, a journalist who puts the culture of excess into frightening and historical context, reminding us that all great cultures have reached a moment of obsession with excess before self-destructing completely. But the varying scale only further demonstrates the damage we are doing to ourselves and the world around us. The culture of excess is destructive on a personal level and a societal one, and it’s become so pervasive there might not be a way to escape.
If there is any hope in the film, it’s when we see a handful of Greenfield’s subjects in “recovery” as it were toward the film’s end. The son of an REO Speedwagon member who is living a middle class life, raising his child in counter to his own parents who left him to the hired help, the former teen rapper who now works as an engineer and brags about his daughter’s full ride to Cornell, the aforementioned porn star who has left the business and is back home in the Midwest, working for minimum wage, but determined to recover from her years in the gutters of Hollywood. The recognition by these few individuals that the excesses of their pasts stole their very souls, provides some hope that as a culture we might eventually realize the same.
The message of Generation Wealth isn’t subtle, and it isn’t easy to stomach, but it’s important enough and presented well enough that we are willing to listen. The only real question is whether we still have time to act on it, and if enough of us even want to.