Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has been carefully examining worlds of excess, wealth, and addiction for more than two decades. Her 2006 documentary Thin took a harrowing look at young girls getting treatment at an anorexia and bulimia clinic. Her 2012 breakout hit The Queen of Versailles documented timeshare tycoon David Siegel and his wife Jackie as they were building what would’ve been the largest house in America had the country not slid into an economic free fall in 2008. Greenfield’s latest documentary, Generation Wealth, blends together much of her past photography and film work for a telling portrait of where society is headed–and the future isn’t looking too bright.
“I started to think that maybe the work I had done since the early ’90s told a bigger story about how our culture had changed, and how the American dream had changed,” Greenfield said in the latest episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation. “How we have gone from a dream characterized by hard work and frugality and discipline, to a dream that was more about bling and celebrity and narcissism. And I started going back to the work and trying to connect the dots. What did it mean about us?”
In the process of dissecting this new version of the American Dream, Greenfield turned the camera on herself for the first time in her career, creating what she calls her most personal and ambitious project she’s ever done.
Below are some highlights from the episode:
The empathic power of film
“I started this by doing a book actually with no intention of making a film. And I really wanted to make the film, eventually, for a couple reasons. One was I wanted to be more emotional and empathic. When I’m doing the work, I really love the subjects. I really am affected by their highs and lows, and in this film there are a lot of tragic moments and I wanted the audience to feel that too. There’s something about photography that kind of keeps you on the surface and can be more of voyeuristic and less empathic. And I think for this project, it was really important for me that people can see themselves also in the characters, no matter how extreme they might be.”
Gaining insight by losing objectivity
“I really wanted to show how we’re all complicit in this story, and this isn’t about a bad guy over there. I also really want people to be able to stand in the shoes of the subjects and see that I’m not being judgmental and not pointing the finger. My work has always been about kind of what makes us tick and why people make the decisions they do. And what are the influences that are playing upon them.”
How “wealth” is being redefined
“By the end of it I realized that wealth wasn’t just about money. It was about fake it till you make it–posing as having it in a way that was as important as having it. It was about the currency of beauty, the currency of youth, the currency of sexuality, the currency of fame. And so each character’s story tells a different piece of that.”