Over the past 30-plus years, income inequality has skyrocketed – the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class has slipped away into the past, a faint memory from the heyday of the American Dream. As an increasing majority of economic gains are funneled upwards, padding the already plush bank accounts of the super-wealthy, there hasn’t been much in the way of civil unrest or political backlash. Instead, there’s been a kind of veneration of the ruling class, be it the political desire to call each and every wealthy person a “self-made man” or the lifestyle porn that dominates television. It has been said that the author John Steinbeck said (through a paraphrased quote often attributed directly to the author) that socialism never took root in America because “the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Horatio Alger. Bootstraps. It’s your fault that you’re poor and not any systematic issues that could be fixed with political willpower.
The culture of wealth obsession is the subject for the new documentary from director Laura Greenfield, Generation Wealth. Greenfield really tries to tackle a lot in the documentary, even going as far as making the film incredibly personal. And yet there’s just too much going on in Generation Wealth that it’s unable to craft much of a coherent argument. For each fascinating point raised by Greenfield, there’s some just as equally frustrating around the corner. By the end of Generation Wealth, I felt that I had no further insight into the vast societal sickness towards materialism, though I certainly did have a better understanding of Greenfield herself and her family life – not exactly what I went into this documentary hoping to learn about.
At first, Generation Wealth seems to be about following a set of rich youth that Greenfield first documented for a project in the ‘90s. Catching up with them 25 years later, you could see in these people varying issues that were raised by their affluent upbringing. This alone probably could’ve sustained a film – the aftereffects of affluenza, as it has been called. Before the film gets too interested in these subjects, Greenfield pivots to a number of various individuals, each with their own stories of chasing wealth. It’s the scattershot nature of Generation Wealth that undermines itself at each turn as the film never focuses on one particular aspect long enough to give viewers anything more than a cursory glance at whatever Greenfield is trying to focus on.
As Generation Wealth dips and dives between its examination of cultural excess and their origins, Greenfield takes a number of turns into various unexpected directions. A sizable segment of the film focuses on obsession, and Greenfield uses her previous documentary on eating disorders to further the comparison between the endless pursuit of wealth and illnesses that arise from societal pressures. Then, before that idea has been fully realized, Greenfield turns the camera on herself and her family, focusing on her personal obsessions that have driven her works since the ‘90s. It’s a daring choice for Greenfield to make this movie as much about her as it is about broader societal trends, but it’s fails to coalesce into anything resembling a coherent point. In a lot of regards, Generation Wealth is like a documentary that was assembled by algorithms in a blender – take a social topic, director inserts themselves, tangents and unsubstantiated claims, the end.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of Generation Wealth is the puritanical streak that runs throughout the film. A former adult film star that gained a bit of notoriety after an encounter with Charlie Sheen (of course) is presented as an example of sex workers chasing fame and fortune through a quick route of pornography. Strippers at a popular Atlanta strip club also appear in this segment, but they quickly fade from the picture. The story of the adult film star is tragic, with a suicide attempt and bankruptcy happening along her journey. When coupled with the unchallenged analysis by professor Chris Hedges, Generation Wealth doesn’t simply stand against the objectification of women but practically asserts that sex work is symbolic of an unabated moral decline that feeds into the boundless greed that is pervasive in every aspect of society. It’s quite a jump and one that doesn’t come across convincingly because, like much else in the film, there’s only one example and its examination is rather brief.
Generation Wealth is a disappointing documentary because it’s often so close to being insightful and gleaning important truths about some of the ills affecting modern society. Laura Greenfield is a strong filmmaker whose ambition got the best of her, resulting in a disjointed film with muddled, ineffectual points. Maybe society is just so afflicted with its wealth sickness that looking at all the symptoms of the illness makes it impossible to craft a compelling diagnosis of how the infection started and spread.
Laura Greenfield’s Generation Wealth is determined to examine society’s obsession with accruing wealth but the film is a disjointed diagnosis of a sick society.