(USA, 106 min.)
Dir. Lauren Greenfield
With self-proclaimed financial genius Donald Trump being the most significant politician in the world and the global economy continuing to affect everything from Brexit to far-right populist regimes in Eastern Europe to the rise of the nouveau riche in China, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Generation Wealth couldn’t have been made at a more appropriate time. The film ratchets up interest immediately, plunging us into the chaotic present where a cigar smoking German proclaims “I love money” and closing his eyes, prays, “Come to me;” an attractive American in her 40s, says that it’s “Unamerican” not to want money, and a six year old girl overdressed in Vegas showgirl attire proudly admits that her biggest desire is to have a roomful of money so she can “spend it and kiss it.” Greenfield’s fast paced opening section ends with the standard White Male authority figure pronouncing “Societies accrue their greatest wealth when they begin to face death.”
Maybe Greenfield promises too much with her title and spectacular opener. Or perhaps she never intended to make a critique of late capitalism as it atrophies and decays into a rotting hulk of what it has been. In any case, the director of The Queen of Versailles, her hit doc about an outrageous American couple who built a mansion to match that of France’s Sun King, has made a film that concentrates on the excesses of pop culture and the need to build better family relationships.
Greenfield was born and raised in greater Los Angeles and that’s where she lives now, with sons Gabriel and Noah and husband, the producer and entrepreneur Frank Evers. The film shifts quickly into a look back, as she revisits the kids featured in her first photo book Flash Forward, which incisively chronicled the excessive lifestyle of L.A. teens in the early ‘90s. She visits a number of them now but none has turned out to be as famous as two of their friends in earlier days, Kate Hudson and Kim Kardashian. When Greenfield interviews the notorious former hedge fund operator Florian Homm, and it turns out that they have known each other since they were both at Harvard, the jig is up. Greenfield is clearly making an autobiographical film about the subjects of her former photo essays and docs—Jackie Siegel, the Queen of Versailles shows up—and her own excesses are going to be examined as well as many others.
Greenfield is far more concerned about the unmoored society we are living in today than in anything to do with money. She profiles Kacey Jordan, a former porn star who famously hooked up with Charlie Sheen and achieved notoriety for doing something very naughty 58 times. By the end of the film, Kacey has reverted to her real name and is thinking of returning to her native Oregon. Another subject, Suzanne, a highly successful hedge fund operator goes from Botox and collecting modern art to motherhood through a surrogate. While Greenfield enjoys showing some of the decadent behaviour that only money can buy—Florian Homm is particularly fine as a reminiscing former financial villain—she is more concerned with finding personal solutions than trying to deal with our current economic and societal crisis.
A good part of the film is devoted to Greenfield’s assessment of herself. A child of divorced parents, she feels guilty that her sons feel neglected by her. Too often, photo assignments and documentary film shoots have taken her away from her family. Clearly, her husband Frank has been, as she says, “the secret recipe” that has made her family tick.
Much of the final part of the film is taken up with paeans to parenthood. G-Mo, the teenaged rapper in Flash Forward has gone back to being Cliff, a web marketer, but as he proudly points out, he’s become a great dad. Mijanou, the L.A. high school homecoming queen from Greenfield’s first book, has morphed into a back-to-the-land person, who is raising her daughter in the country, without TV. Even Florian Homm regrets ignoring his wife and kids and desperately wants them back.
So is the answer to Donald Trump and global capitalism a return to better parenthood? Will Greenfield, a self-confessed workaholic who is hardly a bling person, become a better human being by embracing motherhood? Hard to tell. But it’s fair to say that Generation Wealth, as wild a ride as it starts out to be, offers a confused message to viewers living in a profoundly disquieting time.
Generation Wealth opens July 27 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.