Generation Wealth looks at our money-obsessed culture, but gets distracted

C+ Documentary
Directed by Lauren Greenfield

Let’s start with the obvious: The extreme wealth and greed inherent in our society is destroying our lives, our culture, and even the planet’s ability to support human life. Lauren Greenfield studied outragious American affluence before in the excellent documentary The Queen of Versailles, where she studied one couple building what would have been the largest private home in the country.

In her new documentary, Greenfield takes on the same subject on a larger canvas. Here she interviews several people who chased extreme wealth, and some of them at least temporarily found it. None of them found happiness.

At its best, Generation Wealth displays our money-obsessed culture. We see young men loaded down with expensive bling, and naked young women dancing for the dollars that men wipe on them. We see conspicuous consumption at a preposterous level, with boys in their early teens showing off $100 bills for the camera. We have become a culture of narcissists.

Over the course of the movie, we meet a mother putting her six-year-old daughter into beauty contests (the daughter says she’s doing it for the money). A once-poor woman becomes a porn star and finds that she can’t bear what her job requires. The son of a rock star, who in childhood had little connection with his parents, works low-level jobs while recovering from drug problems. A woman devoted entirely to her high-paying career has trouble conceiving at the age of 40.

You might have noticed that not all of these are rich people. Some grabbed at the brass ring and missed. But most fell for the concept that if you’re not wealthy, you’re nobody.

But Greenfield spends too much time on herself and her family, to the point where it becomes the center of the film. Early on, she tells us her own story in considerable details. Over the course of Generation Wealth, she frequently interviews her parents and her children. They come off as nice, well-adjusted, and not too concerned with money. (She doesn’t interview her husband, but she clearly makes him seem like a great guy.)

The film often takes a detour to study women who will do anything to look good. Several women interviewed had plastic surgery, and one spent so much money on it that she lost her home and her child. We also see women struggling with eating disorders.

The most interesting subject is a Harvard Business graduate who became obscenely wealthy through questionable business practices. He spent 18 months in a European prison, is still wanted in the USA, and can never leave Germany. He still dresses and behaves like he’s filthy rich.

Generation Wealth doesn’t pretend that this is only an American problem. A sequence in China shows how the country’s newly wealthy pay extravagantly for etiquette classes. These are people whose parents grew up in the cultural revolution.

The film contains experts discussing the problems of wealth, television, and disposable culture. Some of their views made sense; others leaned to an extreme.

There’s a lot of good stuff in Generation Wealth. But you must wait through some repetitive or irrelevant scenes. Worse, you must wait through the filmmaker’s autobiography.