“I luff money,” a mustachioed man sighs in a thick Teutonic accent, leaning back into tufted leather and puffing blissfully on a fat brown cigar. “Commme to me.”
If Generation Wealth weren’t clearly labeled documentary, you might wonder if you’ve accidentally wandered into a Christopher Guest movie — some kookily imagined demimonde populated not by delusional dog lovers or community-theater devotees but by disgraced hedge funders, former porn stars, Russian oligarchs’ wives, and retired child-beauty queens.
The theme here, loosely, is money, but it’s less a cohesive through-line than a sort of cinematic smorgasbord of the subjects that photographer-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has specialized in for nearly than three decades. Across photo books and exhibitions (Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood) and award-winning films (the 2006 anorexia chronicle Thin, 2012’s curdled American dream The Queen of Versailles), her work has always gravitated toward the acute edges of pop culture: images of desire and consumption radiated to the extreme via food or social status or female sexuality.
Like Greenfield’s photographs, her storytelling has a distinctive style, one that feels hard to separate from the undeniable but often queasy thrill of voyeurism. Wealth’s subjects, whether they’re young Chinese women paying thousands of dollars to learn how to properly eat a banana in mixed company (use a knife and fork and slice longways, like a smile); a Las Vegas VIP hostess who would rather party with her 21-year-old son than hide her lifestyle from him; or an Icelandic fisherman-turned-finance-guru-turned-fisherman-again, are all fascinating, in their own way.
So is her family history — comprised of a nurturing father and a college-professor mother who nominally chose career over child-raising, a quietly supportive husband, and two young sons who followed in her own privileged footsteps to attend Santa Monica’s famed Crossroads High School. (Its glittery alumni list includes Kate Hudson, Kim Kardashian, Zooey Deschanel, and Jonah Hill.)
Greenfield’s attempts to weave those disparate bits into her larger narrative — and by extension, examine her own extremes — come off surprisingly well, even if they never feel entirely organic to the rest of the story. Her voiceover dialogue, though, is often less illuminating; insights that aim for the profound but often feel glib or overgeneralized.
Eventually, it’s Wealth‘s inherent too-muchness that undoes its own best intentions. Nearly every supporting character here could easily have been their own movie, so what we do get from each feels less like a complete portrait than a tease. And the conclusions the movie comes to — among other things, that our modern allegiance to material wants and needs may be a symbol not just of cultural excess but the actual End of Days — are intriguing but incomplete at best. Still, it’s hard not to walk away piqued, dazzled, and not a little bit disturbed. B+