The second word in the title of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary “Generation Wealth” is, pardon the pun, a loaded one. Perhaps that’s because the money-mad characters we encounter, whose obsessive commodification of their outward lives invariably puts them on a collision course with inner dissatisfaction, can hardly be called rich in any holistic or fulfilled sense. The abundance on display may be physical in form — worn, driven, accessorized, surgically enhanced. But it’s matched by an equally teeming, unquenchable emptiness.
Greenfield is a Los Angeles-raised photographer and filmmaker who has spent decades in the trenches with consumerism’s most extreme cases, including the eating disorder sufferers in her 2006 film, “Thin,” who can’t square culture’s body ideals with their own image of themselves, and the flamboyantly ostentatious subjects of her 2012 film, “The Queen of Versailles,” a billionaire Florida couple erecting a 90,000-square-foot home against all financially logical odds.
The Siegels of “Versailles” pop up in “Generation Wealth,” too, because the movie is also in part a summing-up of Greenfield’s career chronicling extravagance as a politically and culturally reinforced operating principle for existing. Subjects snapped, interviewed and filmed over the years for various projects are revisited here, with varying degrees of matured awareness regarding the status-conscious mindsets they once paraded for her lens. The gorgeous and obnoxious rich (and rich-adjacent) kids of Greenfield’s early youth-culture monographs are now quieter, chastened adults with regular lives.
A German-born hedge fund gazillionaire, now wanted for fraud by U.S. authorities and living where he can’t be extradited, is ready to cry on camera — between performative puffs of his cigar — about where it all went wrong. And a 31-year-old school bus driver from Virginia hated her post-pregnancy body enough to get figure-altering plastic surgery in Brazil, only to see its deleterious effect on, well, everything since.
These stories, which combine the crass, redemptive, and tragic, speak simply if compellingly to the director’s thesis that our poisoned American Dream — hard work replaced by easy money — has us heading toward an economic and moral precipice. Author Chris Hedges is her go-to talking head for alarmist declarations and an ominous Fall of Rome analogy, while a few seconds of our affluence-addled president in a montage of narcissistic glitz speak volumes.
Greenfield, who narrates, also makes herself a subject, and not just in art-making scenes that show her toiling away on shoots and assembling the career-spanning images that make up a same-titled exhibition, doorstop tome and, eventually, the movie we’re watching. Perhaps sensing a need to explain why this new Gilded Age of soulless material bloat has fascinated her for so long, she surveys her own upbringing as a conscientious but anxious Westside kid raised among well-off, groomed-for-success peers.
But the mix of essay, history, critique, laughable spectacle, and reflection starts to feel unwieldy and steered toward easy assessments about the perils of loving money and worshiping appearance over substance. There’s little of the gently nurtured surprise in “Versailles” that resulted in a multi-faceted portrait of the initially cartoony wife — here, there’s something almost expected about how our snickers turn to sympathy (or, in the case of the hedge fund guy, schadenfreude). It often feels as if these thumbnail sketches would be more resonant if we knew more than just the carnivalesque befores and heart-laid-bare afters.
That makes one ultimately grateful for the honest tone Greenfield takes with herself, questioning her role in propagating the allure of wealth, but also as a rarely home, workaholic parent worried she’s no less addicted — albeit to genuine achievement — than her subjects. And “Generation Wealth” is indeed an achievement — a messy, conspicuous and sporadically absorbing one.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts July 20, Arclight Hollywood; the Landmark, West L.A.