Lust for wealth followed by regretful mea culpas (genuine or otherwise) is something of a pattern in this deeply depressing, emotionally complicated documentary.
“I loooove money” are among the first words we hear in “Generation Wealth,” Lauren Greenfield’s crammed compendium of capitalist excesses and toxic materialism. They’re spoken by former hedge- fund manager Florian Homm, a louche and rueful mansplainer of the collapse of U.S. fiscal responsibility. Since becoming a longtime fugitive from the FBI, it seems the scales of greed have fallen from his eyes.
Lust for wealth followed by regretful mea culpas (genuine or otherwise) is something of a pattern in this deeply depressing, emotionally complicated documentary. For 25 years, Greenfield, a photojournalist and anthropologist of the privileged, has observed their rituals and addictions with a keen eye for the person beneath the designer logos. Best known for her 2012 documentary, “The Queen of Versailles” — about a billionaire couple’s attempt to replicate a French chateau in Orlando, Florida — her work functions both as vulgar voyeurism and social criticism.
Playing like a greatest-hits compilation with bonus tracks, “Generation Wealth” revisits some of those former subjects — the billionaire couple; a Las Vegas über-hostess; an impossibly fragile-looking adult film star — to see how they’ve fared. Not well, by and large: Many seem damaged and drained, sad victims of an obsession that neither our society nor this movie has a cure for. The revelation that the longed-for lifestyles of the flush and famous don’t always confer happiness isn’t a surprise; but perhaps it should be, the film seems to say. That it’s not only underscores the cynicism with which wealth is so often pursued.
And it’s the pursuit, even more than the acquisition of lucre, that’s the movie’s true subject. From an Atlanta strip club where cash-crazy dancers rake bills off the floors, to a school where aspirational Chinese learn to pronounce essential phrases like Dolce & Gabbana, Greenfield’s work pokes insistently at the psychological spaces we hope money and status can fill.
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Wobbling uncertainly between sensationalism and studiousness, “Generation Wealth” might seem simply a marketing adjunct to her 2017 breeze-block of a book and exhibition of photographs. Darting from micro to macro and back again, squashing obscene consumption against child beauty pageants and ruinous debt, its structure makes for an unfocused thesis.
The through line, though, works, as Greenfield repeatedly turns her camera on her own family and career choices. Fretting over endeavors that have kept her so often away from her two delightfully articulate sons, she binds the film’s far-flung concerns before coming to rest on a spot she’s been aiming at all along: Love matters more than money. But we already knew that — didn’t we?
“Generation Wealth,” a documentary directed by Lauren Greenfield. 106 minutes. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, disturbing images, and drug material. SIFF Cinema Uptown. The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.