Food for the Soul: Generation Wealth Exhibition

“When the financial crash happened in 2008, I realized that the stories that I have been telling since the early 90’s about consumerism and about materialism and how that had become part of the American Dream- that they were all connected.” ~ Lauren Greenfield

Generation Wealth Exhibition:

By Nina Heyn, Your Culture Scout

Lauren Greenfield is most known as one of the most influential photographers working today, with her works exhibited and collected in museums all over the country. She started as a photojournalist covering poverty in the Chiapas region of Mexico until she had an epiphany that she can document the same issues of poverty and street life closer to home in the US. Her fascination with the ways a modern society handles the lack of resources has eventually shifted towards the way it handles the excess of resources. She has explored it in a 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles.

She has now created an amazing photography exhibition and a book entitled “Generation Wealth.” Greenfield has also been very drawn to the examining how women and girls perceive themselves and how the society affects this perception. She explored it in photographs and books (Thin, Girl Culture) and in directing the famous advertising spot “Always#LikeAGirl” which swept the advertising awards of 2015 and which is now part of MoMA’s permanent collection.

Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles won a US Documentary Directing Award at Sundance in 2012 and numerous accolades from Directors Guild of America, International Documentary Association, Critics Choice Awards and others.

The movie ostensibly centers on a news story about a construction of the largest, single-family home in America, a 90,000 sq. ft. palace modeled on Versailles. What we get instead is an intimate portrait of family who are caught in wealth rather than in poverty but they are still very much caught. This is an American Dream at epic scale and a story of a gigantic downfall as their family fortune starts to dissolve in the 2008 financial and real estate crisis. The story starts while the family is enjoying an extraordinary prosperity and confidence, all the while building their Versailles as well as a flagship hotel in Las Vegas. The 2008 real estate crash brings in a brutal riches-to-rags reversal. The husband, understandably, becomes more and more grumpy as his empire is on a brink of foreclosure. The wife is more graceful and stoic about the situation but it is not easy to downshift. She is intelligent and likeable so this is not just the case of a vulgar nouveau-riche. She is really having a hard time coping with daily life when her twenty household staff have been dismissed. She now has to cook (even corn on a cob is a challenge), shop in a regular store (her trip to Walmart is a helpless grab of anything that comes her way) or rent a Hertz car (she discovers rentals do not come with a driver). Most of all, she has to manage her eight kids who have never been taught any discipline, given any goals or encouraged to have intellectual pursuits. Kids have no idea how to follow up on responsibilities, even for pets (a lizard dies, a pet snake is lost somewhere in the house and dog poop is underfoot everywhere). This is a picture of what excessive wealth does to regular, nice people- when they have it and when it suddenly disappears. In this family the only person who seems to have a healthy relationship to people and things is a teenage cousin who was adopted after having living rough in the streets. She almost sounds like a spokesperson for adversity as a way to shape character.

Greenberg’s fascination with materialism and its excesses continues in her latest social commentary entitled “Generation Wealth.” The current exhibition at The Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles comprises of photographs and a 25-min documentary exclusive to the the exhibition. The documentary will eventual expand into a full-length one for Amazon Studios. The photographs provide an insight into lives of wealthy families and individuals: from Russian oligarchs to Chinese businessmen to the US rappers, and any nouveau-riche in between. We see various expressions and accoutrements of wealth: formal portraits with a horse or a yacht, fairly shocking images from plastic surgeries, mountains of expensive accessories, cars, homes, gold chains – often what we see is literally too much- too much gold, too much Botox, too much ornamentation. Then there are photos of rich kids – tiaras on toddlers, signs of bulimia and drug abuse in teenagers. We read their heart-breaking and incredibly frank stories and statements. Titles of various sections of the exhibition speak for themselves: “Bling Dynasty/ New Oligarchy,” “Sexual Capital/ New Aging,” “Princess Brand/ Cult of Celebrity,” “Fast Forward/ I Shop Therefore I Am.”

The highlight of the exhibition is a 25 min documentary which explains Greenfield’s creative process and includes very poignant interviews that illustrate the old maxim that money does not buy happiness. A Russian oligarch breaks down in tears when remembering how he failed to buy one happy, peaceful family evening, even with a promise to buy a yacht. A teenage girl talks about the compulsion of buying and how it never satisfies any desire to feel good. A businesswoman’s life has been reduced to homelessness in a trailer truck by the latest real estate crisis. And there are hundreds of photos of wealth (and sometimes its loss) around the globe–a debutante ball in Moscow, an abandoned family home in Orange County, an etiquette lesson in Beijing. A fascinating pictorial of the insatiable desire for more.

The exhibition runs till August 3 in Los Angeles and it is scheduled to move to New York in September.


A poster for the exhibition at Annenberg Space for Photography.

Food for the Soul Series

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