Generation Wealth: an insider's view of the super-rich
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Generation Wealth: an insider's view of the super-rich

What does rich mean?

A former hedge-fund manager rolls a fat cigar around in his mouth; he left the United States with hundreds of thousands of euros strapped around his crotch after a warrant was issued for his arrest. Once the owner of 28 houses, many of which he had never had time to visit, he is now confined to his native Germany. “I could have any house, any boat, anything I wanted,” he remembers. “I love money.”

Why would you want 28 houses? If having a lot of money is good, observes his son’s girlfriend, then having more is better.

An ultra-wealthy Russian family in a Lauren Greenfield's documentary <i>Generation Wealth</i>.

An ultra-wealthy Russian family in a Lauren Greenfield's documentary Generation Wealth. Credit:Lauren Greenfield

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Money doesn’t look the same from every angle, as the rich, formerly rich and perpetually aspiring tell Lauren Greenfield in her jaw-dropping documentary Generation Wealth. More often than not, it’s about appearances. It can be about gold teeth or handbag collections; if you’re a Chinese industrialist’s wife, it can be about learning how to eat a banana with a knife and fork. Or it can be about turning your body into a commodity. A bus driver who spends and borrows big to have a suite of plastic surgery procedures ends up living in her car. “Capitalism exploits insecurities of all kinds,” says Greenfield.

It may seem surprising that Greenfield’s subjects are prepared to talk on camera about these things but, thanks to reality TV, we live in a culture where wealth and public display are inextricably bundled together.

Lauren Greenfield has been taking photographs for 25 years. “Over that time we have gone from a culture that admired discretion, frugality and hard work – the values of the Protestant ethic – to a culture that values bling and celebrity and narcissism,” she says. “Also, we have also had greater inequality, greater concentration of wealth and less social mobility than we have ever had before, so this kind of bling showing off is like a replacement for a real ability to attain wealth.”

Greenfield became an observer of the rich when her academic parents sent her to a private high school in Los Angeles. Her schoolmates included the children of Hollywood stars and rock’n’roll millionaires who drove to school in BMWs. Some of them became her photographic subjects; a few of them still are. “I’ve always walked this fine line between being an insider and an outsider,” she says. “A lot of the kind of imagery that I’ve documented I’ve only been able to get because I could fit in.” The criminal hedge-fund manager is someone she and her husband knew at university.

That said, many of her subjects are nothing like her: a former porn star who once rejoiced in being able to buy all her family flat-screen TVs, for example, or the Kentucky mother whose daughter is winning beauty competitions in heavy make-up and a Las Vegas showgirl outfit at the age of three. But she isn’t much like the Wall Street diva with a Botox habit, either; you can’t imagine Greenfield being bothered enough about herself to have Botox. You wonder why they trust her. How can she coo over anyone’s handbag collection? Or admire a facelift?

Sara Jane Ho teaches a two-week class that costs $16,000 for students who want to learn to properly pronounce foreign luxury brands like Hermes and Givenchy

Sara Jane Ho teaches a two-week class that costs $16,000 for students who want to learn to properly pronounce foreign luxury brands like Hermes and GivenchyCredit:Lauren Greenfield

She says she just doesn’t judge. “What I try to do in my work is really look at what these things say about the culture and its values and how that is driving our behaviour,” she says. All her “characters”, as she calls them, have misgivings or regrets; some admit they made mistakes; a couple of them have even had Damascene conversions to the simple life. Porn star Kacey Jordan, for example, goes home and gets a job in the bar where she used to work before she made her first sex tape.

“If girls think their power is in their bodies and that they could be porn stars, maybe seeing Kacey Jordan’s fall can teach us what the consequences of that choice are,” says Greenfield. “I’m trying to get inside the characters with empathy, but also show the consequences which I think affect us all. We may not all have children that we dress as showgirls but at my son’s school girls are posing with very sexual pictures on Instagram. I think we need to see the full exploitation to understand that every day, when we are walking down the street, we are part of this.”

Generation Wealth is screening at ACMI until November 19. acmi.net.au