Switch on the TV, open Instagram, walk down the street of any major city, and you are enveloped by images of wealth and beauty. Unattainably thin bodies, perfect noses, exorbitantly priced clothing, and luxury real estate loom in the horizon, and we drop to our knees, begging God (or whatever diety you prefer) to bless us with this lifestyle. “If I had the 2018 Dior handbag, if I had thinner legs, all of my problems would dissolve.” It’s everywhere, inescapable, and if you’re not trying to mimic the habits of the one-percent, are you even trying?
In her exhibition at the International Center of Photography open until January 7, 2018, Lauren Greenfield examines the implications of what she calls “Generation Wealth,” which also happens to be the name of the exhibition. Generation Wealth is a culmination of 25 years of work by Greenfield, and it explores how wealth has influenced contemporary life. In each of her photographs, Greenfield presents the viewer with narratives (both written and visual) of excess, corruption, and beauty, and the subsequent fantasies that arise from the constant presence of imagery depicting the glamorous lives of the one-percent. Greenfield’s photographs are alluring and their ability to transfer narrative and emotion to the viewer is uncanny. The exhibition uses all of ICP’s gallery space and pairs Greenfield’s photographs with a variety of clips from her documentaries including THINK, Beauty CULTure, kids + money, and the Queen of Versailles.
Greenfield began the project in the early 1990’s in Los Angeles. At the time, wealth imagery was beginning to bloom and permeate the American psyche. Of course, there was no better place for the trend to root itself than in Los Angeles, a city known for its Hollywood glamour and wealth. Much of the imagery that appears in Generation Wealth documents Los Angeles youth, like Kim and Kourtney Kardashian as teenagers. The photographs tell the stories of eating disorders, $15,000 bar/bat mitzvahs, and the competitive nature of Angeleno wealth. However, Greenfield quickly expanded her field and searched for stories across the US in major hubs of wealth including Orlando and Las Vegas. In Orlando, she covers the building process of the largest home in America. In Sin City, Greenfield focuses on club culture, the sex work industry and excessive wealth. Moreover, she provides international insight by reporting on the economic booms and subsequent crashes in countries like Iceland, Ireland, and China.
In one of her documentaries, Greenfield explains what sits at the heart of her project, “It’s no longer keeping up with the Jones’, it’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” People are no longer interested in attempting to keep up with the neighbor who has a nicer car or a remodeled kitchen. The American dream has been distorted immensely. Vertical economic growth has replaced horizontal economic growth as the major American objective. The goal for so many is to break out of their class; to obtain the amount of wealth that can buy a 60,000 square foot house or a Rolls Royce. In many of the images and clips throughout the exhibition, Greenfield is sure to illuminate the great paradox of Generation Wealth and that it is more difficult than ever to ascend the class and wealth ladder. To show this, Greenfield deploys narratives surrounding middle and lower class people who attempt to “fake it until they make it.” Unexpectedly, she does not only depict the failures of this method, but features now-celebrities like the hip-hop artist Future who were able to break class boundaries by forming their art around themes related to wealth. In Generation Wealth, Greenfield presents the unsteady state of the American dream and urges the viewer to reconsider their priorities when it comes to wealth, status, and celebrity.
all images// © Lauren Greenfield