Generation Wealth (2018)

Directed by Lauren Greenfield

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Generation Wealth covers a lot of territory, and I find it all riveting.  It’s ostensibly about overconsumption and the corrupting powers of wealth, but from there Greenfield turns the camera on herself to help tell a broader story about addiction.  The impulses that drive some to dramatically alter their bodies or nearly go bankrupt in the attempt to keep up appearances, she reasons, are the same impulses that have turned her into a workaholic.

The documentary weaves together many different interviews, cut up in a way that their respective climaxes all occur at once.  In some ways it might feel a bit manipulative and the catharsis forced (accompanied by swelling music), but sh*t it got me good.

It’s hard to know where to begin, and the documentary may have bit off more than it could chew, but I found every subject fascinating and tragic.  Maybe the documentary itself is a case of overconsumption, jamming too much into too short a runtime.  We meet people who have themselves bit off more than they could chew and been burned for it.  Some of them are reeling from various setbacks and tragedies while others may not have learned their lesson.  In the case of the latter we see a young man explain the lesson his wealthy father should have learned from his misbehavior.

One story involves a woman who went to Brazil for plastic surgery she couldn’t afford.  She did it, she says, so that she could help pass on to her daughter a more positive self-image.  If her mother does her best to look her best, she figures, than her daughter might find that empowering.  It’s a strange logic which in her case feels tragically futile, an attempt to cross a divide that is perhaps uncrossable, and the steps she takes are symbolic of the ways we turn to empty, shallow stimuli to patch over a deepening abyss.

Or that’s the point the movie suggests, and it’s hard to disagree.

One woman, a former pornstar, details her rags to riches story (which involves crossing paths with Charlie Sheen), but as you might anticipate it’s a disturbed tale.  She is interviewed over the course of a number of years and looks dramatically different each time, like a literal phoenix rising from the ashes, a new person formed though maybe only on the surface.

There is also a series of adults Greenfield first met as teenagers in Los Angeles when she photographed the children of wealthy parents.  The ones we see onscreen, for the most part, have turned out quite well, having learned something from the excess and the ways it didn’t fix anything on the inside.  Others haven’t grown up so much as just gotten older.

There’s a sociologist, other workaholic millionaires, and the story finds subjects all over the world.

The film opens with Greenfield explaining, briefly, her own career and how it led to her fascination with wealth.  She then introduces us to her family, and in doing so she explores how her own ambition may have gotten in the way of family.  It helps make the movie’s ultimate point, that all that really matters are the people we love and how much time we spend with them.

The message, though wholesome, is kind of hokey, but the stories here are so damn real, and in the cases of the people interviewed there are details that are both disturbing, tragic and eventually surprisingly tender.  There are a couple details involving lost pregnancies and children, dissolving relationships, and in all just a bunch of people learning with age that the things we are taught to value don’t have any value at all.

There’s some other stuff in here that might depress the hell out of you, as it did me, and it’s hard to reckon with those details, about the rise and fall of civilizations and how this excess wealth in America may foretell a coming crash.  And even if you can argue that the film might omit certain details to make its point, it’s hard to say the point is off base.

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