What Rampant Materialism Looks Like, and What It Costs
The binding of Lauren Greenfield’s new book of photography, “Generation Wealth,” has the color and sheen of a bar of yellow gold. The book has the heft of bullion, too: at seven pounds, it is too heavy to hold in a single hand, and too weighty to read unless rested on a lap or table. The size is demanded by the scope of the work. It consists of five hundred glossy pages of Greenfield’s photographs from the last quarter century, along with accompanying text. The images range from portraits of high-school students and gangbangers in Los Angeles in the early nineteen-nineties, to photos of plastic-surgery aficionados undergoing their painful rites in the mid-two-thousands, to pictures of high rollers at Las Vegas casinos “making it rain,” tossing stacks of dollar bills like confetti to the glee of those around them. But the book’s design also seems intended to be ironic commentary on the culture, or subcultures, it seeks to portray: materialistic, vulgar, excessive, and wasteful. The book would fit perfectly into the pseudo-rococo decorating scheme of the penthouse apartment at Trump Tower.
Greenfield may be best known to a general audience not as a photographer but as a filmmaker. Her 2012 documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” which won the directing award at Sundance, tells the story of the subprime-mortgage crisis through an extraordinary case study: the efforts of David Siegel, a time-share mogul, to build his dream house, a ninety-thousand-square-foot mansion inspired by the Palace of Versailles, in a gated community near Orlando, Florida. At the center of the film is a cautiously sympathetic portrait of Jackie Siegel, David Siegel’s third wife, a former beauty-pageant queen and an avatar of flagrant consumption. Jackie has a closet full of clothes from Chanel, as well as a taxidermied dog, a former family pet, named for that brand. Her idea of economic retrenchment, when Siegel’s business appeared to be on the brink of cratering, is to take her shopping habit to Walmart, filling a convoy of shopping carts with Christmas gifts. In the context of the financial crash of 2008, the story of the Siegels serves as an allegory for the grotesque, overleveraged expenditure of the age.
The Siegels are the subject of a chapter that comes in the middle of “Generation Wealth,” and the rest of the book shows why Greenfield was able to so skillfully observe and document their milieu. For decades, she has had an enduring fascination with the display of wealth—or with display that is meant to ape that of the wealthy. She grew up mostly in Southern California, the child of divorced, bohemian parents who lived in a semi-communal style in Venice. Greenfield enjoyed proximity to but not direct experience of wealth, American-style, attending a private school in Santa Monica that was populated, she writes, by the kind of kids whose lives Bret Easton Ellis chronicled in his début novel, “Less Than Zero.” (Born in 1966, Greenfield is two years Ellis’s junior.) She also was exposed to a different perspective on wealth and class at the age of fourteen, spending a year living in Paris. Placed by an agency with a family that, while of modest financial resources, was descended from the French aristocracy, Greenfield was exposed to their pride in ancestral values. She writes that she came to admire the confidence her host family took in their lineage, and to emulate the manners they instilled in their own children, while also remaining aware of less pleasing currents of social conservatism and reflexive anti-Semitism among members of their class. She writes, “The elitism and conformity of their cloistered world was incompatible with the values I had grown up with, which prized diversity, social mobility, and democracy.”
Class as refracted through those American values became and has remained Greenfield’s enduring subject. Her interest, she writes in her introduction, is not so much with wealth, or with the life styles of the one per cent, though she gives us an insight into some of their habitats and habits. In one indelible image, she portrays Marjorie Post Dye, the granddaughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the founder of General Foods and the former chatelaine of Mar-a-Lago. Post Dye sits with her Doberman, Bode, holding a snapshot of the dog taken before he had corrective surgery to tighten a sagging bottom lip. Canine face-lifts aside, Greenfield is predominantly concerned with the pervasive aspiration toward acquisition and display, be it among those with old money, those with new, or those with next to none. An image of the orderly walk-in closet belonging to a Toronto socialite, stacked with dozens of orange Hermès boxes, shares a page with an image of the bedroom of a sixteen-year-old in Lakewood, California, who goes by the name Lil Pokeey, and who has his own stacks of orange boxes, from Nike, containing his extensive collection of sneakers.
Greenfield’s images are often documentary in nature, hers an unobtrusive but perceptive eye. At the West Hollywood night club Whisky a Go Go, in 1992, she captures a bar-mitzvah party at which a diminutive boy with rubicund cheeks stares glassily into the cleavage of a go-go dancer who has been hired to gyrate with partygoers on the threshold of manhood, while she looks at him with lowered eyes that are half flirtatious, half maternal. Shots taken at a high-school dance in Bel Air the same year show a clutch of girls dressed in the uniform of grunge that was au courant—jeans and lumberjack shirts—but with glossy, well-kempt manes of hair. Among them we see the pre-famous Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, aged twelve and thirteen, respectively, the former locking precocious eyes with the camera. In another of the juxtapositions of which Greenfield is fond, a few pages away is an image of Enrique, the senior-class president of Hollywood High, in a chalk-stripe suit and black fedora, soberly handing over payment for the rental of a limousine, having worked for two years to earn the six hundred dollars he would spend on prom night.
Greenfield has chronicled some of the country’s most lurid cultural phenomena, immersing herself in worlds that have either before or after her visitation been deemed sufficiently sensational to be material for reality television. Her photographs of child beauty-pageant contestants would be unsettling even without the monitory ghost of JonBenét Ramsey looming over the pages. These include images of a pageant mom holding open a case for her daughter’s “flippers,” the picture-perfect dentures that she wears over her own still developing teeth. Also featured is Eden Wood, the six-year-old star of the show “Toddlers & Tiaras,” who looks like a scaled-down Dolly Parton and is quoted as saying, “My favorite princess is me.”
The muddled intersection of sex and sexuality with spending power is explored in Greenfield’s images from Las Vegas. There, she shoots a male patron of a sports bar called Cheetahs, which supplies scantily clad dancers alongside its big-screen displays of football. We see the impassive back of a customer’s head as he surveys both ballplay and buttocks. But Greenfield also goes to the Moonlite Bunnyranch, a legal brothel outside Las Vegas, where she photographs Brooke Taylor, who gave up her twenty-thousand-dollar-a-year job as a case manager for adults with developmental disabilities to become a sex worker, a far more lucrative occupation. Taylor is pictured in a blue satin romper, standing in evening light, against a desolate Nevada landscape. It is all mountains and dust, with construction vehicles in the middle distance: an unlovely setting for an unloving transaction. (I, too, spent time as an observer at the Bunnyranch a few years before Greenfield visited; the women were different, but the stories were the same.)
Greenfield’s interest is often in the limits of what can be bought and sold, and the psychological costs of materialist acquisition. A series of portraits, taken over a decade, of Suzanne, a successful hedge-fund executive, first show her at age thirty-seven, a Louis Vuitton purse on her desk and an Hermès scarf around her neck. She talks about her use of cosmetic enhancements—she started Botox at twenty-nine—and her embrace of fertility treatments with her soon-to-be husband. “Money means access to the best health care without having to worry about it,” she says. Later images reveal the ways in which even as much money as she has cannot, in fact, erase worry: an image shows her reclining on her bed, grimacing through the Botox as her husband injects her in the thigh for the fifth round of in-vitro fertilization. (Eventually, Suzanne had a daughter with the help of a surrogate; her husband left six weeks after the baby came home, and she now employs a live-in nanny, who, Suzanne says, takes the child to those activities “where there’s no value-add to me being there.”)
The title of the book, “Generation Wealth,” seems at first to be a misnomer: Greenfield’s subjects range in age from preschoolers to the octogenarian “Miss Kitty,” a South Beach night-club denizen of eighty-seven who in the early two-thousands regularly hosted a soirée called “Do Your Grandma.” (She is pictured lounging with a cocktail, in a white lace dress, looking like a louche Miss Havisham.) Nor is Greenfield’s scope limited, as one might expect it would be, to America. She photographs the effects of foreclosure in the Inland Empire of Southern California, but also in Iceland and in Ireland, where an emptied-out estate of newly built thatched cottages looks like a hobbit community after the plague has struck.
She also chases down efflorescences of wealth—its acquisition and its decline—across the globe, visiting the construction site of a Beijing hotel named for, and inspired by, the Château de Maisons-Laffitte. Hundreds of peasant farmers were displaced to make space for the building, which makes David Siegel’s folly in Florida look like the Petit Trianon. The cover image of the book depicts a young Russian woman, her blonde hair braided in traditional style, wearing a baby-blue sweater into which the words “i’m a luxury” have been knitted, alongside her equally blonde, sullen daughter, who rides a wheeled, furry pony through the hallways of their Moscow mansion. The sweater, a helpful note inside the book explains, is made by the designer Andrey Artyomov, “whose Walk of Shame fashion line is popular among the wives of oligarchs.” Greenfield’s subject, a former model and photographer named Ilona, is the wife of a shipping magnate. As another image shows, the extensive bookcases in her mezzanine library contain multiple copies of only one title: her own self-published collection of photographs. As with many of her other subjects, Greenfield looks with an eye that is not simplistically censuring, but nuanced and sympathetic. In the interview that accompanies these portraits, Ilona confesses that she would rather live in a smaller house—that this one feels cold and impersonal, like a hotel—but that the culture of the Russian nouveaux riches demands that Muscovites who make money, like her husband, must display it with private jets, a yacht, and, she notes, “a young and beautiful wife.” Ilona’s consciousness of herself as a purchasable luxury consumer good makes the slogan on her sweater seem less brash than poignant.
If the accumulated images in Greenfield’s book do not depict a single place or generation, they are all concerned with the fact of generation itself: the perpetual making and lavish expenditure of wealth. Since her early encounter with the French aristocracy, Greenfield has been asking herself the same questions in hundreds of different ways. What are the values of those who have come by their wealth without the restraining influence of inherited class expectations? And how do they—and their would-be wealthy emulators—express the fruits of their affluence? And what value do we, as a culture at large, place upon their accomplishments? In the pages of Greenfield’s book, no less than in the votes that propelled our golden-haired President from the gilded faux-salons of Trump Tower to the White House, we have our answer.
For more of Lauren Greenfield's work, please visit Chelsea.com