Lauren Greenfield’s Wealth of Ideas
Documentarian Lauren Greenfield has spent decades studying what our culture values.
Since the early 90s, Lauren Greenfield has been documenting the many ways consumerism teaches us to measure our self-worth.
Lauren Greenfield: When you ask kids nowadays what they want to be when they grow up, they say, "rich and famous.” And that is not a job, and there's no way to get there.
Greenfield's films and photographs use the language of popular culture—bright colors and subjects like sex, money, and status—to draw viewers into much darker stories. For her most recent project, Generation Wealth, Greenfield combed though half a million images collected over the past 25 years to weave together a larger narrative about what people actually value, and why.
Greenfield: It's not a show about the “one percent.” Most of the people in here are not even wealthy. It's about our aspiration, our striving. So I'm looking at the currency of beauty, the currency of the body, the currency of sexuality, the currency of youth, the currency of branding, the currency of money, but also the currency of “fake it 'til you make it”—looking the part being as important as being the part—and this tension or contradiction between image and substance.
Lauren Greenfield grew up in Los Angeles, a breeding ground for many of the insecurities she would later explore cinematically. But it wasn't until leaving California to study the Maya for National Geographic in Mexico that she realized how much creative fodder was waiting for her back home.
Greenfield: While I was there, really struggling with the language, struggling to understand the culture, I read an old copy of Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero. It really spoke to me about the excess, and the alienation, and the disconnected feeling that I had seen in my high school—which, for my last two years of high school, I went to a private high school where a lot of kids' parents worked in Hollywood. It was a place where what you wore mattered, what you drove mattered, and I realized that I wanted to go back and study my own culture.
That exploration became Greenfield's first book, 1997's Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. It was followed by the book Girl Culture, a study of the self-esteem crisis among American women—a theme Greenfield delved into again with the 2006 HBO documentary, Thin, and 2011’s Beauty Culture. Obsessions with luxury were the subjects of Kids + Money, Magic City (filmed at the infamous Atlanta strip club of the same name), and in her hit documentary, The Queen of Versailles.
But Greenfield doesn't only record the ways these fixations play out in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2014, she made a dozen trips to Russia and China to witness the blossoming role of consumerism in post-Communist countries.
Greenfield: It was kind of this amazing case study where revolution had tried to get rid of inequality and class difference. And so, like with kids in L.A., it was a very honest, transparent, guttural grab for luxury and status. And so when I first went to China, people were just starting to get rich, and very rich. And so I photographed, for example, a man who had built a replica of the White House and out of his office window was Mount Rushmore, which he had also built. There was a Versailles that I photographed outside of Beijing. That was really exciting for me, to kind of see in giant terms—the way they were kind of interpreting luxury and status. And then that evolved over the years. I went back in 2014, and made a series of films about the rich in China, where they weren't just interested in designer brands anymore. They were interested in class, and culture, and almost aristocracy, in learning noble sports. They didn't just want Louis Vuitton, they wanted to be able to properly pronounce Louis Vuitton.
The oligarchs abroad tell a familiar story: the pursuit of social legitimacy through conspicuous consumption. But Greenfield says that in the U.S., the futility of this pursuit has become more obvious over time.
Greenfield: Inequality has increased over the last 25 years, and the concentration of wealth has increased in the hands of the few. So some of the bling has actually replaced real social mobility. So there's this sense of, like, showing off, because the steps to actually achieving a better life for your kids than your parents… [it] doesn't feel real to people in the same way that it did in my parents’ generation.
AJC: I would love to know how you define success for yourself.
Greenfield: See, I think that part of why I can connect with all of these stories of addiction is that I'm always striving myself. And it's not for money, it's not for fame. It's like—it's kind of just for itself. I think that's what keeps me going. It's what gives my life meaning. I'm really trying to answer some of these questions that I have, and that I feel are important. But I'm trying to enjoy the moment and not be thinking about what's next.
And though pausing to contemplate her accomplishments isn't Greenfield's strong suit, she has occasionally been taken aback, like when her award-winning commercial campaign for Always #LikeAGirl went viral in 2014.
Greenfield: It was really one of the most satisfying experiences of my career. It was something that was hiding in plain sight, that I didn't realize its power, and I don't think other people realized its power until we really put the microscope on it. But it really just made me also believe in the power of this work. For me, I've spent a lot of my career looking at the negative power of advertising, but I also learned a while back about the power of advertising, period. And so I have been really interested and engaged, also, in working in advertising because when we can put different kinds of imagery there, that is really where the rubber meets the road for young people.
And this desire to change things for the better defines the philosophical core of Lauren Greenfield's work: highlighting cultural values so that we might consider new ways of engaging with them.