Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 21, 2018 6:24 pm 
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Everything and more

Lauren Greenfield's 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles gained attention for the sheer kitsch absurdity of its subject, a rich, tasteless couple trying to build the largest private house in America - till the financial crisis cut them short. It may have been overpraised, but it had the advantage over her new film Generation Wealth of that clearer, more limited focus. This new film wants to be about too many things. Greenfield, who is also a photojournalist, has worked over the last twenty-five years on subjects she considers related, to do with money, wealth, acquisition, accomplishment, display. These things are related. But tacked all together in one documentary, through specific individual photojournalist stories, they make for a messy, confusing movie. On top of that, Greenfield also wants this to be a film specifically about herself - and her pursuit of these topics. And thereby she risks seeming as narcissistic as some of her overreaching, over-rich subjects. Her personal story only confuses an already overstuffed subject and muddies an uneven tone.

The seeds of Greenfield's fascination with extravagance can be traced back to her youth, it turns out. Her parents, highly accomplished Harvard graduates descended from immigrants, sent her to the expensive Crossroads high school in Los Angeles. There she met a generation of rich kids, spoiled brats, full of the usual teenage desire for indulgence but with more means to act upon it. She revisits some of them here. Memorable is a black classmate, who became the rapper called Future. He posed with stacks of cash, but now, we learn later in the film, focuses on raising his family. Many less sensible, less fortunate parents and children come and go in the film. One might have survived without all the Botox, and without following the woman to Brazil for extensive cosmetic surgery, done while she's half awake.

Generation Wealth records Greenfield's own workaholic tendencies, acknowledging that as she chronicled the addictions of others to things and money, she has been addicted to work and accomplishment. Even when one of her sons (whom we also see at various ages) was only ten weeks old, she couldn't bear to turn down a job in Russia. Luckily her husband Frank stepped in to care for the baby. Frank seems to have been the family's source of stability for three decades. She has passed on her ambition. Her elder son Noah, it's proudly reported, got a perfect score on the ACT college admission test. But he says to the camera that he had to grow up accepting that a lot of the time she wan't there. (His younger brother sounds unusually articulate, even wise.)

Luckily for Greenfield, she has Chris Hedges as a skillful prophet of doom to pull together the film's motley collection of tastelessness, extravagance, and dysfunction. Hedges appears only occasionally, sitting in front of an impressive private library that is its own alternate kind of conspicuous display, but he makes one feel like it all fits together even if it doesn't, quite. He outlines some history. Another voice points out that things got too loose when we went off the gold standard in 1970. Then the Yuppie era that came in with Reagan in the Eighties led to a crass emphasis on wealth for its own sake. Extravagant lifestyles, like the Pyramids of Egypt, Hedges points out, tend to make their appearances at the end-time of civilizations. The present difference, Hedges says, is that "when we go down, the whole planet's going to go with us." Later he says, "Global capitalism has done a very good job of destroying culture," and "that inability to hear the voices of the past, leads us to abandon solid values." Perhaps these proclamations are true. All help to make seem orderly what, in fact, is a very meandering series of segments whose only unifying quality sometimes seems that they could have been featured in a supermarket checkout tabloid.

Another interesting voice, from the trenches as it were, also making us feel like we're making sense of things, is Florian Homm, the expansive, cigar-puffing former manager of a $800 million hedge fund. A former Harvard acquaintance of Greenfield's, Homm once was on the FBI's, and even a global, Most Wanted List for securities and wire fraud. For this, without trial, he says, he served fifteen months in jail. He doesn't give details, but says he's now safe from prison if he stays in Germany. From what Homm says, his overreaching and obsession with money represent a common tendency that's just, well, pretty stupid in human terms. (The rapper, Future, grasped this early on.)

There are many other stories included in the film that Greenfield has followed, such as Susanne, the workaholic woman in the finance industry and her effort to have a baby after forty, which cost her a fortune to have another woman carry it for her. Or the gentleman from Iceland who went into banking during the boom there, built a gigantic house, and then got fired when the Icelandic banks went bust. Or the stuff about China and Russia, because Greenfield has made a lot of work trips to those two countries, both homes of conspicuous display, rampant capitalism. Or the man in China, briefly mentioned, who built a house that's a replica of the White House, with a view of a reconstructed small Mount Rushmore. Or the well-spoken lady in China who teaches the new rich how to say Louis Vuitton, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana, and how to eat a banana with a knife and fork. (Probably not what Chris Hedges means by culture.)

There is a whole episode in the film, its most distasteful one, about sexuality and pornography. ("W're a completely pornified culture," declares Hedges.) This is an extension, no doubt, of his point about global capitalism destroying moral values, and it gives sex and pornography a bad name. Surely sex isn't a bad thing, and sometimes what's called "pornography" isn't either. Some of the film just seems like a TV Reality show, and for a few seconds, Charlie Sheen appears. It also seems like a debased version of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," and sure enough, for a few moments that program's creator, Robin Leach, appears, disgustingly overweight. Porn stars and pole dancers come and go.

Toward the end of this film one begins to feel nauseated and overfed. And in fact it begins to feed off itself, providing an interview with Greenfield's elder son where he expresses his enthusiasm for this, her latest project, and then showing the opening of an exhibition coordinated with the film showing many of the still photos of her career. People who have been interviewed in the film come to the opening. They look at photos of themselves, like the ones shown in the film. And they, like her son, respond with approval. It comes to seem as if Greenfield's taste for bad taste is itself a kind of bad taste, and that she, like many of her subjects (hasn't she herself said this?), doesn't know when to stop. Maybe the best documentaries aren't apocalyptic proclamations about everything, like this film or Eugene Jarecki's recent The King, but little, dedicated projects whose sole ambition is to focus on one subject and show it to us up close, patiently.

Generation Wealth, 104 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018; also at the Berlinale; fourteen other festivals, mostly US. US theatrical release 20 July 2018. Metascore 53%.

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