In Generation Wealth, the Rich Are Still Partying Like It’s 2007
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- For 25 years, photographer Lauren Greenfield has chronicled the ascendance of a global elite: here, a picture of French aristocrats sitting beneath ancient tapestries; there, movie executives flashing $100 bills in St. Barts. Once, she took a portrait of a Chinese businessman in front of the replica of the White House he’d built as his home.
She’s also recorded their fall. Her masterful 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles, followed timeshare king David Siegel and his wife, Jackie, as they attempted to build the biggest home in America, a plan that collapsed during the 2008 housing crisis.
Whereas the book was more cautious about passing judgment—the Hermès bags, megamansions, and yachts were photographed carefully, as if at a remove—the film is unequivocal in its distaste for conspicuous consumption. “It’s kind of like the end of Rome,” says a talking head as images of Las Vegas parties and gold jewelry flash across the screen. “The pyramids were built at the moment of precipitous Egyptian decline, and that’s what always happens: Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment that they face death.”
Leaving aside the obviousness of that observation (anything that’s already peaked is by definition in decline), Greenfield’s documentary, which she wrote and directed, argues that we’ve reached the beginning of the end. Our global quest for fame and fortune, she argues, has gone hand in hand with an increasingly ossified class system.
In her telling, the poor ruin themselves by buying brands that make them feel rich, while the rich paper over their misery in a bacchanal of pointless extravagance. “Corporate capitalism pushes people toward this constant search for the next adrenaline rush,” says another voice-over. “People seek that momentary ecstasy to escape from a darker and darker reality.”
The film gives us glimpses into the life of some of these people. We’re introduced to a bus driver who goes into crippling debt to get plastic surgery; we meet a toddler pageant star who, when asked about her motivation, says, “Money, money, money. I would have money as big as this room.” A female hedge fund manager begins the documentary by saying, “I do believe that it’s un-American to say you can make too much money.”
This sort of message, however, is strangely at odds with the reality of 2018. Greenfield’s claim that the poor are spending more and more on status symbols will come as a surprise to American retailers, whose across-the-board decline is generally blamed on millennials’ preference for “experiences” over material goods. Similarly, the documentary depicts 2008 as a defining moment in the world’s financial and social trajectory, but global markets’ subsequent decade-long bull run is barely mentioned at all.
Of course, there’s a chance that this recovery is a mere blip on a much longer downward trend. Global inequality has risen to record levels, and it doesn’t take an economics degree to realize that the next generation’s dismissal of luxury goods might not be voluntary. Maybe they just can’t afford them.
And yet Greenfield’s takeaway—money doesn’t buy happiness, family is important, status is illusory—feels too pat. It also ignores a larger point: The people here who claim not to want money are the people who’ve had it and lost it. “It takes a long trip to come back to what matters,” says the disgraced financier Florian Homm, who was criminally charged with investment fraud in 2013. (Homm disputes the charges.) “All of us are following a toxic dream. What you’re sold in this world is a bag of rotten goods.”
It takes Homm’s son’s girlfriend, who’s also in the film, to bring his high-flying sentiments back to reality. Homm, she says, is compensating for his newfound penury. “I feel like a lot of his regrets are that he kept pushing it to the point where he fell,” she says. “And he just wishes that he had not fallen.”
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