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‘Generation Wealth’ as Empty as the Lives of Excess It Portrays

Documentary falls short, while strip bar story offers insights, and hope.

By Dorothy Woodend 24 Aug 2018 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Some days, I wander through the mall in downtown Vancouver and look at the faces of the people shopping. Everyone has a similar expression, caught somewhere between boredom, hope, and a kind of somnambulist glaze, that makes them seems like they are moving underwater, or in a deep trance.

Sometimes, I try to picture the mall without people. The lights are on, music is piped through the speakers in the ceiling and, in the empty stores, shoes, purses, and earrings glitter like pirate booty.

It feels like we are witnessing the end of the world lately. In which case, what did we get for our troubles? As the sky turns the colour of old cardboard and the midday sun resembles a maraschino cherry, the price paid for the benefits of cheap energy is coming home to roost, dark wings of change that make it hard to draw a deep breath and settle like ash into heart and mind. Almost all us humans are implicated in one way or another in this reckoning, whether we’re an average punter wandering through the mall in search of a quick endorphin hit or the yam-coloured POTUS giving up the fundamental values of his country for the art of the deal.

If you’re looking for answers as to how we’ve come to this place where we’re shopping while the world burns, you’ll learn that sooner or later it all comes down to money.

A selection of films screening in Vancouver in the coming weeks all deal with money — the getting of it, the having of it, the loss of it and ultimately the physical and spiritual costs incurred in its enshrinement at the centre of our world.

But if you’re looking for a deeper explanation of what drives this endless appetite for more money, Lauren Greenfield’s film Generation Wealth may prove a bitter disappointment.

Having documented the rich, the powerful and the beautiful for 25 years, you would think that Greenfield would have gleaned something from her close observations. You cannot grow up poor without having a very strange relationship with money, and no doubt on the other end of the spectrum the very wealthy have their own sets of peculiarities. But Greenfield’s film succeeds in neither being shallow enough nor deep enough. Instead it treads a strange middle ground, despite some of the more lurid subject matter on display. The filmmaker claims that by looking at the extremities of a society, you can extrapolate what is happening in the mainstream. Right on cue, Chris Hedges pops into frame, summarizing the thesis of his book Empire of Illusion, stating “Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment that they face death.”

In support of this idea, the film presents a gallery of grotesquery, including a disgraced tycoon, a plastic surgery addict and a porn star attempting to set a record for the most bukkake (in the current terminology) heaped upon a human being. After taking, as she says, “Fifty-eight loads to the face,” she ends up with salmonella for her troubles. In another chapter, a woman reinvents herself through major plastic surgery, maintaining that it is to help her daughter feel better about her own body. Instead the teenager carves the word “dead” into her forehead and hurtles herself out of a moving car.

Horrific is putting it mildly. But there is something, even more insidious at work here, and that is sentiment, the cheapest and easiest of emotion to invoke. The film may look like it is attempting to humanize the people it depicts, to add complexity and nuance to the Reality TV drama of their lives, be it Keeping Up With The Kardashians or Toddlers in Tiaras, but it is actually doing something quite different.

All you have to do to figure this out is to pay attention to the musical cues.

The film is literally coated in music, a sticky bukkake of swelling strings, mournful flutes and tinkling pianos. At any point in the narrative, you can close your eyes and understand not only what is being shown, but how you are supposed to feel about it. Greenfield’s story is supported by warm caramel-flavoured sound that speaks of wholesomeness, warmth and love, while the tale of banker Florian Homm is spiked through with glissandos of unease, music designed to prickle the nerves and create a feeling of pooling dread.

If this tactic was even slightly less ham-fisted it might have worked, but this is not a subtle film by any stretch.

It also sets itself an impossible task — questioning the origins of the particularly American obsession with money, sex and fame. In attempting to figure it out, Greenfield narrates in her Valley Girl croak, beginning with her first photographic collection Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. The project documented the lives of teenagers attending Crossroads, a private school in Santa Monica, Calif., and the alma mater of Kate Hudson, Kim Kardashian and Greenfield herself.

Over the course of her career Greenfield has captured the anthropological rituals of different communities, from Girl Culture, with its depiction of body issues like anorexia, to the world of the obscenely wealthy in The Queen of Versailles. She is an adept chronicler of the social mores, with an attraction to sensationalism.

But Generation Wealth falls victim to the very thing that it is attempting to critique, namely excess. Quite simply, there is too much stuff in here. The narrative lurches from one horror show to the next. One moment it is crammed into the backseat of Vegas limo with a posse of panty-less blonds, and the next it is coolly eyeing gory surgical procedures in Brazil. With machine-gun rapidity the film fires off scenes of Russian oligarchs, Chinese luxury classes with instruction in the correct pronunciation of Louis Vuitton, ridiculous limousines, Birkin bags, botox injections, money, fame, sex, and plastic surgery for dogs.

In all of this expanse, the film fails in positing even one original thought. Instead what we get is a recap of U.S. history from ’70s-style hedonism, through the go-go ’80s, Reaganomics, the rise of Wall Street, luxury brands, the pornification of culture and the bubble-popping crash and burn of 2008.

Chris Hedges, acting as a one-man Greek chorus, chimes in. “At the end of a decayed culture, we retreat into our own comforting illusions.” Another man, who works in a strip club called Magic City, simply asks “What the fuck is wrong with these people, man?”

That is the question that lingers the longest in the faces and empty eyes of the people captured on camera, including Kacey Jordan, former girlfriend of Charlie Sheen, who parlayed her brief stint of infamy into a porn career. Also featured prominently is Homm, an investment banker who came out of Harvard Business school and went on the lam after being charged with fraud. Then, there is Susanne, a hard-faced hedge fund trader who spends the better part of her life building a career, only to decide a child would give her life meaning. She sets about purchasing one, with the help of thousands of dollars worth of IVF treatments and a surrogate.

But perhaps the saddest of all is a plastic surgery addict named Cathy, who, having lost her daughter, stares into the lens with the look of a wounded animal and talks about getting a better butt. Whether it is sex, money or attention, enough is never enough, there must always be more. In the case of Greenfield, her workaholic tendencies are also a form of addiction, as her fed-up kids state. “You have a problem, you’re filming every second of our lives.”

But none of the subjects have much to offer in the way of a larger analysis. Even Greenfield herself can’t seem to escape the prison of the personal. As the film circles the globe, from Vegas to Iceland to Manila, the story always returns to Greenfield — her kids, her parents, her career, and the fact that almost every immediate member of her family went to Harvard. Although there is never any discussion about how much it actually costs to attend this prestigious institution.

Any more complex understanding of the issues in question is swept away in a tidal surge of sad spectacle, porn, strippers and opulence almost beyond imagination, as the soundtrack’s mournful violins signal incipient exhaustion and collapse.

But at the end of all this heaping pile of images, is Greenfield much different from the purveyors of sex tapes of the poor sperm-coated porn actress? One would hope so, but maybe only by a thin veneer of education, class and privilege. Maybe that too is simply a handy-wipe that allows you to watch the film with the idea that it is documenting reality.

As Greenfield asserts, it doesn’t matter how much people have, they still want more. But why is this so? The film never digs deeper to look at why the fires of appetite and ambition are stoked to such a white heat, it only records the outcome of these forces. As Florian Homm says about his endless pursuit and love of money, “I was a hamster in a diamond-studded gold wheel.” Then he promptly bursts into tears.

Each one of the film’s subjects stares into the camera and weeps at some point, while a piano tinkles sadly in the background. It’s a bag of rotten goods, packaged as the American Dream. Chris Hedges, himself no stranger to hubris, as well as disgrace, describes the fictional version of social mobility captured in television and other forms of mass media as a form of violence that “fuels a sense of inadequacy.”

I am tempted to include Greenfield’s film in this category, a work that claims to present reality but is in fact another form of fiction, albeit one that is even more troubling for being so self-serving and strangely shallow.

In the final coda, the music turns sweet and hopeful, with stupid flutes leading the way, as people talk about giving up their naughty ways and returning to the bosom of family and home. The film ends not with any grand statement about what we’ve learned, but with Greenfield assembling a book that documents her photography and film career, celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary and the departure of her first child to, you guessed it, Harvard. At this point, I felt the sudden urge to scream as loud and as long as possible.

For all its verbiage about separating reality from entertainment, global capitalism destroying culture and the darker future ahead, the film retreats into boneheaded Hallmark card sentiment about parenthood and love as the answer. But family is not a magic panacea. In the end, the film collapses beneath its own internal contradictions and feels as facile and vapid as a glossy photograph.

Generation Wealth, starts a short run at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Aug. 31.

A better, slightly more analytical approach to money is offered in a number of other films, including The Price of Everything, which takes aim at the concept of insane wealth through the Siamese twin relationship of the contemporary art world and money. It’s a corker, but you will have to wait until The Vancouver International Film Festival wends its way to town later this September.

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Support the Girls is dark, funny and a reminder ‘that even in the grimmest of circumstances, human beings have a way of supporting each other.’ Photo from Mongrel Media.

An even more interesting take on the opposite end of the financial spectrum opened Friday August 24, also at Vancity Theatre. Support the Girls approaches the topic of money from the bottom up in a hardscrabble Texas titty bar called Double Whammies. The high cost of being a decent person is the subject of the story, and it is told through the struggles of a woman named Lisa (Regina Hall), who manages the bar.

In addition to her work responsibilities, Lisa broods over her staff, an unruly collection of young women who manage to inject oodles of drama into every humdrum work day. Before she’s even set foot in the joint, Lisa is forced to contend with myriad problems. Her marriage is on the rocks, her boss is a dickhead and the cops are on the scene trying to pry a would-be robber out of the ceiling. On top of that, she still has to figure out the staff schedule for the week. It’s little wonder she’s reduced to crying in her crappy car.

Director Andrew Bujalski wields his cast with precision, and even in the most mundane situations there’s an edge — a waitress forced to bring her sick kid to work because she has no other option, or a former staff member jailed for running over her boyfriend. While the employees organize a carwash to help cover her legal costs, the looming threat of a corporate competitor is taking booby-sized shape.

Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle, as waitresses with their own problems, and James Le Gros, as Cubby, the owner of Double Whammies, all contribute grace notes to the downbeat symphony, but it is Regina Hall who bears the full weight of the film’s emotional investment. Upon her slender shoulders rides the hopes and dreams of an entire class of American folk, working shitty jobs, trying to get by, as all the while a primal scream of rage is roiling in their guts.

The many forms of humiliation meted out — casual sexual harassment, economic pressures, plain old unkindness — are abundant in the film, but in spite of this it is not unhopeful or grim. A species of hard-worn cheer and flinty humour pops out and the film reminds us that even in the grimmest of circumstances, human beings have a way of supporting each other.

In the film’s penultimate scene, the women stage something of a minor insurrection, allowing the chaos that Lisa managed to keep under control to explode and wreck the joint. Double Whammies gets its teats twisted as customers resort to fisticuffs, the satellite TV goes out and a wayward nipple brings down the vice squad.

There is no great takeaway here, only a gentle reminder that the smallest moments of human contact can have a profound effect.

Riding home on the bus the other day, I watched as almost all my fellow passengers stared at the tiny screens of their cell phones. A man in a security guard uniform, who looked like he was on his way home from work, gave me a tired smile. It was a small moment, two people on a bus, actually looking at each other instead of their phones, but it made me feel oddly hopeful. Maybe, if we all look up for just a moment, things might begin to change.  [Tyee]

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