I watch maybe one documentary a year. Most often the only ones that grip me are explorations of extreme people. Films like Finders Keepers and Shut up Little Man are standouts, showing just how strange and repulsive human behavior can be. The most interesting aspect, however, is how these extreme personalities reconcile their behavior. They either don’t recognize that anything is wrong or they think of themselves as trailblazers or philosophers who know the one true way, which we’ve all been too slow to discover.
Florian Homm, an ex-hedge fund manager, chomps and sucks on a cigar like he wants to make love to it and blows plumes of smoke, looking the picture of excess that Generation Wealth seeks to create. When recounting a story of taking his fifteen-year-old son to Amsterdam to lose his virginity to a prostitute, he only becomes offended when asked if he paid for the prostitute. Of course he did. What kind of father would he be, if he had let his son pay? He’s the exact sort of person that drives me to films like these, and the best part is that he’s just one member of a central cast that never wants for extreme personalities.
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Release Date: July 20, 2018 (Limited)
Generation Wealth as a film is as much a glutenous intake of excess as its subjects. Greenfield works to distill 25 years of her photography and filmmaking career into a little over an-hour-and-a-half, and it has a ton of ground to cover--a Toddlers in Tiaras contestant, kids she photographed partying in L.A., a Las Vegas party hostess, a pair of hedge fund managers, a rapper, a porn star, and a litany of others, as well as Greenfield herself. Pieces are bound to drop off as asides, which is unfortunate. There’s a story of a woman getting plastic surgery for her dog that I would love to have seen more of, but it’s relegated to nothing more than a snapshot and a sentence. A return to the Queen of Versailles and other old subjects fair about as well.
Though focus can slip around, most of what Greenfield lets her camera linger on is interesting and dynamic. Snapshots depict wealth and luxury in that mythic way it’s often presented along with commentary on how the American Dream has changed from wanting what your neighbors had to wanting what people on TV have, that dreams aren’t satisfied now until everyone is impossibly wealthy. Interviews themselves dig deeper and show genuine bouts of the despair and hardship that comes with the sacrifices to gain as much of something as possible, whether it be money, status, or a perfect body.
Homm offers a glaring insight into the 2007 mortgage collapse and the part hedge fund managers had in it. He explains in bragging tones how he’s on the FBI Most Wanted List for defrauding hundreds of millions of dollars from investors and how easy it is to make all the money in the world. His rhetoric matches that of the Toddlers in Tiaras contestant who explains that all she wants her looks to bring her is money, money, money, money. She raves about how much she wants all the money she can while her mother sits beside her and grins.
But cracks show. The mother of the contestant pulls her out of the show to lead a normal life after seeing how the public reacted to them. The porn star recounts getting salmonella from a 51 person scene. Even Homm sputters, saying that anyone who thinks money can buy happiness has never had money and that it could never buy the love of his children or his wife. There’s a surprising sadness and grief to people who would normally be caricatures of villainy or stupidity, here.
Generation Wealth misfires occasionally, either trying for something too big or too small. One man narrates that America’s current wealth-obsessed culture is a sign of the collapse of an empire and, by extension, the end of the world. It’s cheesy and ridiculous. No story ever paints a picture nearly that dire. And on the opposite end, Greenfield’s focus on her own life falls short of the actual dramas that she documents. She tries to draw parallels between her actions, the actions of her mother, and the extremes that she’s made a career of. Either because her family situation isn’t so bad or because everyone is too polite to dig into any real trauma, what she mines from her experiences is nothing close to any cataclysm of excess, and it muddies the themes.
Filming in retrospect as Generation Wealth does allows a look at how greed and obsession leave ruins of people in a way media often fails. Even films like The Wolf of Wall Street put so much effort into glorifying luxury that viewers can forget who the monster is supposed to be. Sure, when the porn star talks about making minimum wage and the Toddlers and Tiaras contestant talks about being normal again they do so with the same resignation, but it’s a choice made over the wealth they could have kept, and that’s worth something. It might not be as flashy as threats of the end of the world, but showing people damaged by their desire for too much is infinitely more personal and effective. That’s the power of seeing a film like this. We feel with them. We gain understanding and perspective. We look at our own lives and decide where we fall. And sometimes that’s all we need. Save the end of the world for The Rock to handle.