Lauren Greenfield Q&A
In her new documentary, the esteemed photographer looks at what money buys (spoiler: it’s not happiness)
Over her 25-year career, Lauren Greenfield has documented Russian oligarchs and five-year-old pageant queens, and even a tweenaged Kim Kardashian. Revisiting many of them and amalgamating their stories into a new documentary, Generation Wealth, she has created a startling commentary on our current culture and the seemingly desperate need for nothing more than, well, more. ESQUIRE: What is the message of Generation Wealth?
LAUREN GREENFIELD: “I felt like we were addicted to consumerism in a way that will kill us, and that we were on an unsustainable path. Halfway through editing, when Trump was elected, it felt even more urgent because that was the ultimate expression of Generation Wealth.”
ESQ: Can you imagine Donald Trump watching this film?
LG: “Um, I don’t know, because he sounds like he doesn’t have that much of an attention span and it’s a complex film…” ESQ: You’ve been photographing the rich for decades. When did you start thinking it could be part of a single project?
LG: “It was the international horror of the financial crash and seeing the same thing happen in the US, Europe, Dubai; seeing materialism go on overdrive in China; and seeing what I’d started looking at late in the Nineties blow up all over the world, through globalism, media and our interconnected financial systems. It was a lightbulb moment of: ‘This is a bigger story than I realised’.” ESQ: You interview Florian Homm, a former hedge-fund manager on the run. How did you get him to speak to you?
LG: “We had known him in college so my husband Frank called him up. I really did not think he would talk to me. He’d gone from an $800m banker to the FBI’s most-wanted, but he said, ‘Sure, I remember you guys and Lauren can come over.’ And when I went to Germany and interviewed him, it was really the beginning of, ‘Oh my God, there’s a movie here’, because he was like the devil who had become a truth-teller, and had this wisdom that maybe you can only have if you have that journey, that fall from grace.” ESQ: He’s in exile in Germany. Did you have to be surreptitious?
LG: “In the beginning he was very cagey. I think he was always thinking there would be Americans there to whisk him away.”
ESQ: You say the American Dream has altered. How would you define it now?
LG: With the American Dream, we have
“gone from a place of traditional values and hard work and frugality and discipline, to a place where all that mattered was money, or looking like you have money. One of the tragic parts for us in the US is that we’ve never had so much inequality, and we’ve never had so much concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. So, at the time when looking like you’re rich is so important, actually getting there is almost impossible.” ESQ: Kim Kardashian crops up several times in the film. What do you think of her? LG: “When I went back and started looking through outtakes, I realised that I had pictures of her when she was 12 and so, in a way, our journeys began at the same time. She wasn’t even included in my first book because she wasn’t important then, but by the time I finished, she was so important because she is an icon of consumerism, of television, of narcissism. Unabashedly so.”
ESQ: A big theme in the film is our cultural evolution, and its impact on women and their bodies.
LG: “Definitely. In a way, the most compelling and tragic part about the ultimate cost of capitalism is the commodification of human beings — the ultimate degradation. Not that women are the only people affected — they’re not, as you see in the movie — but theirs is a particularly obvious case study, and also one that I’ve personally been engaged with. So that was a really important part of the puzzle for me to figure out ‘How does gender fit in, if it does?’”
ESQ: Do you think we might be coming back around to a more positive atmosphere for women?
LG: “I feel like, if we didn’t have Harvey Weinstein, we would not have had #MeToo and that, like with addiction, you have to crash, you have to hit rock bottom before you can recover. And there’s power in that.” —
Generation Wealth is out on 27 July