In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, director Lauren Greenfield had the counterintuitive idea of understanding the recession through the declining fortunes of Florida billionaires. The result was The Queen of Versailles, a hugely entertaining documentary about David and Jackie Siegel, a nouveau riche Orlando couple who were in middle of building a 90,000-square-foot estate, modeled after the Palace of Versailles, when the housing market collapsed. As hard as the indefatigable Jackie tried to keep things together, the Siegels were overextended and living beyond their means, and forced austerity halted the project and turned their mansion into a poop-smeared hoarder house.
For her follow-up, Generation Wealth, Greenfield zooms the camera out and takes a much broader look at the excesses of American culture and how they signal an empire in its death throes. In the shift from the gaudy portraiture of The Queen of Versailles to the essayistic sweep of Generation Wealth, Greenfield inevitably sacrifices observational detail for a grim diagnosis of society in decline. The trade-off isn't worth it: The Siegels' story implies so much about unchecked greed and vanity, and the debased values that can seep into a family. By offering multiple case studies, as she does here, in support of an argument on late-capitalist decadence, the idolization of obscene wealth, the commodification of the body, and other related issues, Greenfield winds up spoon-feeding the audience some awfully thin gruel.
"Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment that they face death," says Chris Hedges, a former New York Times journalist, by way of introduction. And Greenfield dutifully cuts from the Great Pyramid of Giza to the tacky facsimile of the Luxor in Las Vegas, the epicenter of American indulgence. Stepping out in front of the camera herself, Greenfield reflects on her career in photography and documentary filmmaking, which has focused on the anthropological study of the ultra-wealthy. Greenfield is shown poring through half a million photos in her archives, all in an effort to assemble a new book about the peacocking of money worldwide, from debutante balls for oligarch's daughters in Russia to status-obsessed teenagers in Beverly Hills. (The completed book, also called Generation Wealth, lists for $75.)
Greenfield has an eye for the absurd, like a course where newly rich Chinese women pay $16,000 to learn how to pronounce brand names and cut bananas with a knife and a fork. But she eventually settles on a handful of subjects: Florian Homm, a former hedge-fund rogue who accumulated nearly a billion dollars before landing on the FBI's Most Wanted list for fraud; Kacey Jordan, a retired porn star who found the wrong kind of fame through her association with Charlie Sheen; Cathy, a single mother who flew to Brazil for plastic surgeries she couldn't afford and paid a terrible personal cost; Suzanne, another rapacious hedge-funder who put off having kids until 40; Eden Wood, a child beauty pageant contestant from Toddlers & Tiaras; and several of the now-grown kids from Greenfield's 1997 book Fast Forward, about L.A. youth culture.
Any one of these stories suggest their own documentary, but their sum plays against Greenfield's strengths for composition and storytelling. Her thumbnail history of the American dream, from a country that produces to a country that borrows and consumes, feels mostly persuasive, as do her assertions about the ruinous desire for exclusivity and status. But there's not much of an organizational principle guiding Generation Wealth, which picks through ideas like Greenfield picks through her old photos, choosing the ones she likes without necessarily figuring out how they go together. Talking heads like Hedges or Bret Easton Ellis, the author of Less Than Zero and other fictions of money and spiritual vacancy, are there to patch the pieces like crude gobs of Elmer's glue.