Anyone who’s ever purchased something wildly out of their price range in a misguided attempt to fit in will relate to the subjects of Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield. The book and retrospective exhibition by the same name, which will be on display at New York’s International Center for Photography Museum until January 7, 2018, function both as a showcase of Greenfield’s incredible 25-year photography career and a study of the first world obsession with wealth, beauty, and celebrity. Greenfield, a Harvard grad who masterfully mixes the aesthetics of fine art photography with the unbiased insight of photojournalism, has been documenting quintessentially capitalist phenomena like child beauty pageants, Las Vegas showgirls, bored housewives, BMW-driving teenagers, and five-figure quinceañeras since the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until she began work on her 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, a parable on the greed and loose credit that led to the 2008 financial crisis, that she began to truly hone in on the common thread throughout her own body of work.
“It became a kind of morality tale about building too big and wanting too much,” Greenfield says of the film. “I had also been looking at how people were affected by the [2008 global financial crisis] all over the world–from Ireland to Iceland to Dubai, and so it came together for me as a kind of moment of insight that we had all been on this hamster wheel in the same way. So I started going back to my work from the ‘90s and looking at how we had gotten there.”
Greenfield is quick to note that Generation Wealth is not the story of the haves or the have-nots, but rather of the middle class strivers, those desperate to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous, even at the expense of their own financial stability. It’s a story of enormous magnitude and implications, one that branches different countries and cultures, with countless localized narratives contributing to a much larger one that ultimately paints a rather depressing portrait of humanity as damagingly status-obsessed and pitifully self-conscious. But one of the most compelling and humanizing threads throughout this catalog of unapologetic bling-bling is the fraught relationship between women, luxury, and status, a trio that appear inextricably linked.
This is perhaps best epitomized in a photo from 1994, which shows a bikini-clad girl riding in a convertible with two shirtless boys. Her name is Mijanou and she was, according to the text that accompanies her image in both the book and the exhibition, voted “Best Physique” at Beverly Hills High School, a superlative that, apparently, in the early ‘90s, didn’t strike anyone as creepy or inappropriate. The kicker is that Mijanou didn’t come from a wealthy family like her other Hollywood-adjacent friends, but used her beauty to curry a level of social status that would likely not otherwise have been bestowed upon her. “She realized that her beauty kind of gave her passport into that world,” Greenfield explains.
Thanks to years spent documenting adolescents and the effect that wealth has on them, Greenfield’s portfolio is filled with images like this, of teenagers as well as girls as young as five, captured just as they’re being indoctrinated into the cult of beauty via pageants or increasing male attention or a Disney-spawned obsession with the concept of being a princess. Often these images are humorous and tinged with nostalgia, but they take on a darker feel when you consider that the girls in them, thanks to the world’s disproportionate focus on their bodies and faces and wardrobes, are being set up to lead a certain kind of life. One that’s rarely, as Greenfield’s photos of their older counterparts show us, fulfilling or sustainable.
Even the ostensible success stories of the series–like Kim Kardashian, who Greenfield unwittingly shot as a teenager and then years later as as an adult, after she, like Mijanou on a much larger scale, parlayed her looks and raw sexuality into capital–feel melancholy and unconvincing. Because if Greenfield’s photos show us anything, it’s that for women, it’s not enough to be wealthy or successful. You have to be beautiful too, and beauty fades. Hence why Generation Wealth is peppered with images of women receiving and recovering from facelifts and breast implants–some in luxury doctor’s offices, some in shady facilities in faraway countries–in an attempt to preserve the youth and sex appeal that once made otherwise impossible tasks like transcending social castes possible.
“When I was looking at wealth, it wasn’t about actual wealth. It was about wealth very broadly interpreted. The currency of beauty, the currency of the body, the currency of looking the part,” Greenfield says.
Greenfield succeeds in the difficult task of presenting these portraits without even a hint of judgment–at least as far as the people starring in them are concerned. What her work does implicate, however, is a society that prizes possessions over people, artifice over reality, and instant gratification over long-term satisfaction. And if you’ve ever, as I have, drained your bank account in the name of a designer bag or spent too much on a night out with the girls because you didn’t want to be the one to suggest a cheaper restaurant or signed a lease on an apartment that you knew you couldn’t really afford, you may find yourself feeling implicated as well. Or, at the very least, a little sick when confronted with the ugly truth about why you made those decisions.
This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with treating yourself. There’s also, as Greenfield readily admits, nothing inherently wrong with getting cosmetic surgery or liking princesses or dropping $3k on a bag. But when it becomes a compulsion or an empty, joyless gesture at something that will always be just out of reach, then you’re probably subscribing to a worldview that rarely begets anything resembling happiness. And sometimes, it takes an image as convincing as those in glossy magazines and on giant billboards to remind us of this.