By Lauren Greenfield
Illustrated. 504 pp. Phaidon. $75.
The documentary filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield’s ambitious new book, “Generation Wealth,” showcases her chronicling of the lifestyles of the rich and famous over the last 20 years. One photo in particular caught my eye, because I happened to be there when it was taken. I’d been interviewing homeless kids in Tucson for a Vanity Fair article in 2003 when Greenfield was sent to take the pictures for it. (The article was never published.) Greenfield’s caption reads: “Jedi has consciously rejected his family’s affluent, mainstream existence in favor of a transient life.” This wasn’t how I remembered the young man, so I checked my transcripts and confirmed that he actually grew up poor and left home, as so many homeless kids do, because of poverty and family issues.
I mention this discrepancy not to flag an error, but because I think it’s important to note, when considering a visual collection Greenfield calls “a sociological document,” that photographers are always looking through a certain lens. It’s not that one needs to argue with her thesis (stated in both her lengthy introduction and a foreword by the sociologist Juliet Schor) that income inequality has gotten out of hand, that our obsession with wealth and fame diminishes and dehumanizes us in far-reaching ways. Rather, one ought to ask, whom does Greenfield offer up as examples? And how does she choose to depict them?
Many of the subjects featured in this collection are female. The conspicuous consumption on display occurs largely among wealthy women and teenage girls (a young Kim Kardashian makes an appearance), models and strippers, 4- and 5-year-old beauty pageant contestants and prom queens. In her foreword, Schor summarizes this theme as the “objectification of women.” But looking at the images one wonders if they themselves do not also participate in this objectification. These are not kind photographs; some seem to mock their subjects, portraying them as frivolous and shallow, hard and crass. The tone is in keeping with how the wider media has often dealt with our collective anxiety over the fascination with money and fame: by projecting it, with great contempt, onto the bodies and personalities of women and girls, as in reality shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” and the “Real Housewives” series.
Greenfield’s photograph of the 6-year-old “Toddlers and Tiaras” star Eden Wood shows her sticking out her tongue provocatively for the camera, recalling notoriously sexualized images of JonBenet Ramsey. The close-up shot of Jackie Siegel’s breast-augmented cleavage, festooned with a bejeweled necklace, cuts off her head, an alteration that’s arguably as dehumanizing as the very sociological phenomena Greenfield decries. Siegel is the presumptive would-be sovereign on “The Queen of Versailles,” Greenfield’s compelling documentary about the rise and fall of the timeshare mogul David Siegel, who unsuccessfully sued Greenfield for defamation in 2012. Men like Siegel — corporate kingpins who bear much of the blame for the ravages of greed — don’t share as much time in this collection as do women. Unlike their female counterparts, Greenfield’s male subjects aren’t scrounging on the floor for dollar bills or perched on all fours before and after plastic surgery. Mostly, they are seated or standing in their plush offices and homes, looking powerful, if sinister.
The photographs in “Generation Wealth” are predominantly of white people. When people of color appear, they are usually not rich. They are gang members in Compton, Calif., students from Crenshaw High School who’ve been selected by a magazine to be luxuriously outfitted with lent dresses and jewels for prom. Most of the more affluent African-Americans in the collection are hip-hop stars, some displaying their bling (Tupac and Jay-Z are featured).
Greenfield claims in her introduction to have found, over the course of this two-decade project, that she was “unearthing a pattern” regarding “the influence of affluence.” But clearly there was another pattern to be found in the types of assignments she was being given. Most of the images in this book accompanied reports that appeared in major publications, from Time to Newsweek to National Geographic. The media’s influence on our obsession with wealth and fame is something she never mentions; but it is there, falling onto the shoulders of the women and girls in her photos who power-shop and proudly display their luxury loot, and perhaps even dream of becoming the next Kim Kardashian.