If you've ever found yourself scrolling through an Instagram feed full of celebrities and influencers flaunting lavish lifestyles, you know how easy it is to feel disappointed once you put your phone down and find a pile of laundry instead of a private jet. It's normal to be fascinated by that lifestyle, but photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield's new documentary, Generation Wealth, exposes the dark side behind the world's wealth-obsessed culture. The doc follows several people's attempts to accrue as much money as possible, and according to Greenfield, there are some major cultural changes that have led to our extreme obsession with wealth.
"One of the inspirations for me was talking to kids and when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up nowadays, they most often say 'rich and famous,' which is not a job except in reality TV," Greenfield says, speaking recently out of New York. In Generation Wealth, in theaters now, Greenfield explains that reality TV allows people to not only compare their lives with their neighbors', but to get access into the world of super-wealthy families like the Kardashians. One of the film's subjects, for instance, is a porn star named Kacey Jordan, who became famous after partying with Charlie Sheen and who told Greenfield that she'd hoped her porn career could lead to greater renown and fortune because of Kim Kardashian (who initially became famous due to a sex tape).
Another subject of Generation Wealth actually did make it onto reality TV: Eden Wood of TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras. One of the most memorable scenes from the documentary is when a four-year-old Eden screams that she wants to do beauty pageants to get money. "I would have money as big as this room," a young Wood tells the camera at the beginning of the film. Speaking to Bustle now, Greenfield calls some people's desire for wealth "insatiable," as even a room full of money might not satisfy someone if they got it. "We're experiencing a collective FOMO, where whatever we have is not enough," the filmmaker explains.
As disturbing as it is to watch a toddler dolled up in pageantry makeup yell "money money money," it's far from the darkest moment in Generation Wealth. Almost every person who Greenfield interviewed for the doc eventually became disillusioned by money or an extravagant lifestyle in some way, and by documenting that, the filmmaker believes that audiences will understand that wealth is not an immediate fix for one's problems. "The movie takes off the veneer," Greenfield explains. "I think that you can't really go through the experience of the movie and still think that [money's] gonna bring you happiness."
Not only do the subjects interviewed in Generation Wealth become disillusioned by money, but many of them suffer from their relentless pursuit of wealth and fame. One shocking scene in the doc shows Jordan filming herself attempting to overdose on pills. Towards the end of the film, she returns to her hometown in Oregon, in pursuit of the bare necessities of happiness.
Throughout the documentary, Greenfield explores her own relationship to both wealth and work, eventually coming to the realization that she can change her lifestyle to better reflect her values. "It became more personal because I saw in my own life how my own addiction to work had similarities with some of my subjects," Greenfield says now. "I needed to kind of wake up to the consequences of that the way the other characters wake up to their own addictions." On that note, the filmmaker says she's now trying to be present more when she's with her kids. "I still do my work and I still love my work, but [I] try to have more of a balance," she says.
Generation Wealth will likely make everyone watching want to take a step back and reflect on the ways that a wealth-obsessed culture and social media have affected their own lives. It might even lead to a major cultural shift — or at least that's what Greenfield hopes. "There's a possibility that millennials could reject this culture of materialism because the young people in the film, they see that it's putting us on the verge of destruction as a society," she explains.
The destruction that already has occurred is shown loud and clear in Generation Wealth, and it just might be disturbing enough to make you rethink all of the time you've spent wishing you were one of the super-rich.