Back when Kim Kardashian wasn’t the world’s biggest star, Instagram didn’t exist, and Supreme was nothing more than a skaters’ hangout in New York City, Lauren Greenfield was already obsessed with the beautiful, rich, and famous. As a photographer, artist, and documentary filmmaker, she’s spent most of her adult life tackling why so many of us spend our lives chasing materialism and aesthetic perfection instead of the stuff that really matters, even when we’re too broke to afford the excessive lifestyles we see on reality TV and social media.
That project, which has led to photography books and exhibitions, has now come full circle with Greenfield's documentary Generation Wealth.
In the movie, which premiered at Sundance in January, Greenfield uses some mind-blowing case studies to make sense of what’s happening to our generation: a money-driven six-year-old beauty queen; a plastic surgery-obsessed mother; and Kacey Jordan, the adult film star once associated with Charlie Sheen, driven to attempt suicide by her dreams of fame. It’s not controversial to say we millennials and Gen Z-ers are often more inspired by celebrity families like the Kardashians than our own, and Greenfield’s film dissects just how dangerous that might be.
In celebration of Generation Wealth’s cinema release on July 20, Highsnobiety met with Greenfield to talk Instagram addiction, photographing a 12-year-old Kim K and her subsequent fame and influence, and how our love for Supreme drops comes from our own insecurities.
You’ve spent decades capturing excessive culture — rich people, the image-obsessed. Is the world ugly to you now?
I don’t see it as ugly. I really enjoyed getting into [the culture] and trying to figure what’s going on, without any sort of judgment. That’s the stance I take to [learn more]. But I do feel like what I came to in Generation Wealth was a scary conclusion, like we're zooming towards the apocalypse if we don’t do something. It's so unsustainable — for the economy, for our families, for our souls.
Do you think the dawn of Instagram and social media switched up the way we see wealth?
I wasn’t seeing change or right-turns, just everything [from the past] on steroids. With social media, it was like a magnification of things like MTV — they’re all tied to the importance of image and selling yourself, and creating your own brand. That was why I decided to interview my kids as representatives of their generation. I wanted to bring it up to date by how they were affected by social media, and so addiction became a really important theme — our addiction to devices.
Your son says something really interesting in the movie: “I know the names of all the Kardashians, but couldn’t tell you the names of our neighbors.” Do we spend too much time worshipping celebrity culture?
In a way, that’s the disconnect that’s behind our addiction. Usually, addiction comes from trauma or trying to fill an unfillable hole. Part of why we’re so influenced by corporate capitalism is because our other institutions have broken down. What we used to find in family and neighbors and our community and religion isn’t as clear anymore. So now we’re just awash in the values of popular culture.
You touch briefly on rap culture and how it fuelled nihilism in the ’90s. Do you have any thoughts on what hip-hop means to our generation today?
My kids would tell you I’m no expert on rap, but it had a huge influence on me in the beginning. It was more about spreading the values of materialism across race, class, and borders, and seeing kids from all over the world emulate the tropes and gestures of hip-hop. Often that was a justification for our materialism.
I interviewed two rich girls for a short I made, and they told me that hip-hop was a way for them to be flashy without guilt or embarrassment. When I started making this, there was a little self-consciousness [to the younger subjects], but rap and reality TV [made their attitudes more] “Balls out, who cares?”
Let’s talk about that photo of Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump at the White House…
You know, it was really exciting to go back to [photography] projects like “The LA Kids” and find someone like Kim Kardashian in the outtakes! Cut to today: she’s standing next to Donald Trump, [having been in] a sex tape and made Keeping Up With the Kardashians. She’s a touchstone of our culture in so many ways.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so scary. What I try to do in Generation Wealth is deconstruct what’s around us so we can wake up to it in a different way. So seeing it was definitely surreal and kind of amazing. Still, it feels like we’re losing something.
Our generation is obsessed with flexing streetwear online, which can lead people to create false personas for their Instagram followers. But it’s also spawned a generation of businesspeople and influencers who’ve built careers off the back of it, too. Is there anything positive in that?
No. It’s capitalism taking over our lives. Kids feeling like their identity is intertwined with brands, people feeling like they’re brands themselves — it’s part of that capitalist exploitation that defines Generation Wealth. In my work, I focus a lot on women and the commodification of their bodies, but I think capitalism is race- and gender-blind because it’s looking for insecurities to exploit to sell more things.
This is an amazing way to sell to boys who haven’t been obsessed with clothing as women have. I see that with my younger son, who’s 12. In his class, they just made a rule that people couldn’t be on their phones before school because people were waiting around for drops! There’s no difference between being a socialite and buying a $10,000 bag and being a 15-year-old who spends $150 on a T-shirt. It’s a democratization of luxury that bankrupts all of us.
So where do we go now?
There’s a lot of hope at the end of the movie, but I felt it was true to what the people in the movie felt. We know that money doesn’t buy happiness, but most of the time we’re not living according to that. Like that addiction comparison — you can’t get better until you hit rock bottom.
But some things have gone back to how they were before the financial crash, or even worse. Trump is president, the real estate market is on fire. I had to ask myself, “Did anything really change?” At the same time, I don’t think we would’ve had #MeToo if we hadn’t had Harvey Weinstein. Trump is an extreme, so maybe this will lead to a new beginning, too. Either that or this is the end.
‘Generation Wealth’ hits UK and US cinemas on July 20.
Next up, here's how much money influencers really make.