Lauren Greenfield has photographed a man who wears 33 pounds of gold. She has photographed a two-year-old getting a pedicure, a home so large it has 32 bathrooms, and a banker who felt shortchanged by his $3.6 million bonus. She has photographed Kim Kardashian and Tiger Woods, JLo and Jay Z, and a Chinese billionaire with a replica of Mount Rushmore–at one-third scale–in his backyard. In fact, over the last 25 years, Greenfield, who is as much sociologist as photographer, has turned her camera on every imaginable expression of wealth and, as such, is uniquely qualified to comment on our increasingly off-the-rails obsession with affluence.
Greenfield’s prescient body of work, which includes the award-winning documentary The Queen of Versailles and her viral video #LikeAGirl, is being presented as Generation Wealth: a 504-page book and a provocative, sweeping exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, opening on April 8.
I spoke with Greenfield about how her images tell the story of a growing addiction to consumerism, and what our obsession with wealth means for the future.
At the height of the economic boom, Greenfield was on assignment to cover the opening of a new Versace boutique in Beverly Hills. She was there to shoot Donatella Versace, but her eye was drawn to three women who, Greenfield remembers, “were all holding blingy Versace bags—and a lot of gold. They were so interesting looking, and I made a picture of their three purses. I started talking to one of the women, Jackie Siegel, who had flown in from Florida just for the party. This picture is so symbolic of the status markers: the rings, the bags, the breasts, the gold. It was 2007, and Jackie was spending $1 million a year on clothes, and Versace was shipping her containers of clothing. That night, she told me she was building the biggest house in America, and she invited me to Florida to see it.”
Greenfield took her up on the offer and ended up being attracted by Siegel’s story–both Siegel and her husband came from humble origins—because “building America’s biggest house was the epitome of wealth and an expression of the American dream.” The house eventually clocked in at 90,000 square feet (including 11 kitchens, a 30-car garage, a 20,000-bottle wine cellar, two movie theaters, a baseball diamond, and an elevator in the master bedroom closet), and the story grew into Greenfield’s celebrated documentary, The Queen of Versailles.
One of the trends Greenfield documents is the new twist on enviously peering over the hedge at the neighbor’s house. “People used to compare themselves to their neighbor down the road, who maybe had a slightly bigger car or closet,” she says. “But with the rise of reality TV and the affluent lifestyles dominating what we see on television–and with people watching so much of it–we’re actually more influenced by these shows than by our neighbors, and we spend more time with them. What we’re seeing is that people are no longer looking to buy a home in a neighborhood because their family or friends or church is there; instead, they’re looking to move into the biggest house they can afford. So what they have in common with their neighbors is mainly their ability to borrow.” It is, she says, a breakdown of traditional community through real estate, in which “people are more interested in keeping up with the Kardashians than with the Joneses.”
In 2001, Greenfield took a photograph of girls at Crenshaw High School, in a working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles, bound for their prom. They’d been selected by a magazine to receive “the Oscar treatment” and were loaned designer gowns and diamond jewelry, as well as given Hollywood-style hair and makeup. But Greenfield sees beyond the glamour: “This is really about a democratization of the signifiers of wealth. When actual social mobility becomes more difficult–and we’re seeing more wealth being held by fewer people–the fiction of social mobility becomes a substitute.” This can take a toll: She photographed another prom-goer from a low-income family who worked for two full years so that he could afford a limo ride to the prom.
In one of the chapters in Generation Wealth, titled the “The Princess Brand,” Greenfield captures the ways in which girls’ traditional rites of passage have been transformed into highly profitable consumer rituals. As she points out, few do this better than Disney. “I made this picture of Christina in 2013 at Disney World,” says Greenfield. “She’s a pharmacy technician in Walmart, and her husband proposed to her [at Disney World] in what she called a ‘dream come true moment,’ which included dinner in the castle and the ring in Cinderella’s slipper. The wedding was also at Disney World, and included a ride in a glass carriage.” At Disney World’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, Greenfield photographed little girls whose parents pay $200 to have their child transformed into a princess, with makeup, hair, and fairy dust. “While their brothers are running around and going on rides,” says Greenfield, “the girls are stuck in a chair focusing on their appearance. Their day ends in photograph: an image instead of an experience.”
In entrepreneur Xue Qiwen’s Shanghai apartment, all of the furniture is made by Versace. At the time Greenfield took this picture, in 2005, golf was a prestige sport (Xue Qiwen belonged to three private golf clubs, each of which cost $100,000 to join), but, as more courses were built, the sport became increasingly accessible and was quickly pronounced passé; polo is the new golf.
“The worldwide obsession with wealth is unsustainable on so many levels,” says Greenfield. “It’s morally unsustainable. It’s unsustainable for our communities, but it’s most urgent for the environment. The traffic in Beijing and Moscow is already incredible; the infrastructure can’t handle all of the cars.”
Although Greenfield didn’t set out to capture the environmental impact of our aspirations to own more and have bigger, her pictures clearly tell that story. From 1983 to 2013–roughly the time period that Generation Wealth covers–she notes that the average American home expanded from 1,725 square feet to 2,598 square feet. “Some of that added space accounts for larger and larger closets that we use to store more and more things. We’ve seen the storage industry blow up and the container industry blow up,” she says. “But the point for me is also about how, psychologically, our appetite for things became insatiable.”