With singular clarity and power, photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles) has long chronicled the excesses of the age, specializing above all else in portraiture of consumer culture run amok. Here are the broke trying to look rich, the old trying to look young, the rich trying to look immortal. Her work, crisp and often witty, honors the selves her subjects yearn to present while also stirring a moral revulsion, a certainty among viewers that Greenfield's extreme cases reveal not just troubled or misguided individuals but a rot in all of us. Still, despite its title and a preponderance of civilization-is-on-the-brink pronouncements in its first reels, her career-spanning new film Generation Wealth is no anti-capitalist manifesto. Instead, it's a survey, a diagnosis, a mea culpa, a reunion, a memoir and a sometimes exhausting plea for us to be better. Like her subjects, like America, it's everything at once.
On hand, of course, are the subjects that have over the last quarter-century made Greenfield a star. Her portrait here (and in her photography work) of a hedge-fund executive named Suzanne exposes, with great sensitivity, the business-minded logic behind persistent Botoxing. And it's heartbreaking and somewhat terrifying to recognize the pressures and desires that convince a bus-driving single mother to go into extreme debt to buy herself extensive plastic surgery.
But for every revelation, we get a scene of Greenfield squinting at old photographs or digging through files, gathering the images for a retrospective exhibition, searching for thematic connections between her interests. By turns, Greenfield's survey is alarming, hilarious and indulgent, sometimes strained, prone to overstatement and an abuse of synecdoche.