“Greed isn’t good” remains the predominant message in Laura Greenfield’s sporadically engrossing and frequently overreaching look at the culture of capitalism. Generation Wealth feels like something of a thesis project for the director, who was behind 2012’s similarly-themed, multiple award-winning The Queen of Versailles.
That film was a brilliant expose of unbridled opulence and its clear, alongside the series of her well-received still photography collections, that it was the impetus behind Greenfield’s efforts here. Placing herself within the documentary, it’s immediately apparent that the filmmaker is both a passionate and qualified voice on the subject matter, having grown up in a wealthy district of LA, subsequently documenting that milieu a number of times since.
Unfortunately, amongst all those abilities which qualify her as the perfect figure to tackle such a potent subject matter, she fails to grasp what made Versailles work so well – namely focusing on one family and their lives to tell a bigger story. Using her older images as a jumping-off point in this film, Greenfield revisits some of those over-privileged teens she grew up with to explore how the desire to earn big bucks has impacted on their lives. She soon widens the net, bringing her probing lens to the wider ramifications in the quest for capitalism.
That toxic aspirational side looms large and is portrayed via the grotesque displays of extreme porn and the quest for celebrity. There’s the unrealistic pursuit of flawless beauty (the tearful testimony of one interviewee in the thralls of a plastic surgery obsession feels particularly insincere) and the contemporary Instagram-infatuated world comes under the spotlight. We’re also witness to a career-driven woman who is now in her late forties, and having spent untold thousands on IVF, has resorting to birth via surrogacy.
This is just skimming the surface in terms of the myriad of spiralling themes Greenfield explores (she even turns the camera on her own husband and children at one point) and while there’s certainly some thought-provoking and salient points being made, in trying to tackle this weighty topic in such a dedicated, all-encompassing way, the film continually loses focus. Just as one subject begins to pique our interest, we’re whipped away, irritatingly, to the next, rarely having the opportunity to get to the heart of anything.
At times the whole film threatens to turn into a visual stream of consciousness exercise which is a real shame, as Greenfield’s aims are entirely admirable and with merit. That Generation Wealth remains watchable is down to the filmmaker’s skills with the camera and her confidence around her participants, but what could have been the last word on the subject is instead merely a vague stab.
Generation Wealth is out now in UK cinemas and on demand. generationwealthmovie.co.uk
Adam Lowes | @adlow76