Generation Wealth brings to fruition twenty-fve years of inquiry into what I call “the influence of affluence.” Since 1992, when I began my first book, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, I’ve been asking questions about the culture of materialism, the cult of celebrity, and the growing phenomenon of status based on appearance and self-presentation. The concept of this project began to come together after the 2008 financial crisis, when I realized that all the stories I had documented were part of a larger narrative—a morality tale in which we were all implicated.
While I call this work Generation Wealth, it isn’t simply about the wealthy. It’s about our increasing aspiration for wealth, which is at the same time becoming a more and more unrealistic goal for many. Today we have a greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few than ever before, with less social mobility for everyone else. The American Dream once meant that through hard work each of us had an equal opportunity to do well. Now that dream has metastasized into unattainable fantasy. “People want to live in Mar-a-Lago with Donald Trump,” social critic Chris Hedges tells us in an interview for this project. Keeping up with the Joneses has become Keeping up with the Kardashians. And if you don’t have money, as the rapper Future explains, the strategy is to “fake it till you make it,” even if you go broke trying.
In this work, I have examined the shift away from traditional virtues—modesty, thrift, social responsibility—toward a culture that admires bling and self-indulgence. I’ve been interested in the psychology behind our desire to acquire, our striving to be other than we are. Extending beyond girls’ insecurities about body image, which I explored in my 2002 book Girl Culture, I have documented this striving among the poor in a culture that worships wealth, among the aging in a society that idolizes youth, even among the people of Russia and China, who now also seek status achieved through luxury brands, rejecting the communist ideology that attempted to erase class distinctions.
It seems not surprising, at this point in time, that Trump— a fashy reality-TV star and real estate developer who may be the apotheosis of “Generation Wealth”—has been elected leader of the free world.
What I learned from the truth tellers on these walls is that chasing wealth is ultimately unsatisfying. As former Wall Street trader Sam Polk tells us, it’s an addiction like any other. Although this journey has sometimes felt like witnessing the decline of Western civilization, there are glimpses of hope in the knowledge gained along the way: in fugitive financier Florian Homm’s discovery of the meaning of life after losing everything; in the peace the spendthrift Kathy fnds living by the sea, even though she had to become homeless to experience it; and in the real social change enacted by Iceland’s citizens a"er they had the largest banking collapse in economic history. Even time-share mogul David Siegel, who tried to build the biggest house in America, admits at the end of my film The Queen of Versailles that he regretted pursuing his grand ambitions through frantic borrowing, calling it “a vicious cycle.” Implicating himself and us, he adds, “No one is without guilt.”
Curated by Lauren Greenfield and Trudy Wilner Stack.
Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield was originally shown at and created by the Annenberg Space for Photography.
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