Bling, celebrity and narcissism: Lauren Greenfield on the fundamental shift in the American dream


The rich are not like you and I, but we are becoming more and more like them. That’s the observation of renowned documentarian and photographer Lauren Greenfield, who spent more than two decades documenting the lifestyles of the one percent.

In that time, she observed something stunning: the cultures, values and (especially) the materialism of the hyper-wealthy were, unlike their money, trickling down to the middle and lower classes. In this special on-the-road episode of “Salon Talks,” held at the Original Thinkers Festival in Telluride, Greenfield describes how she became the foremost “rich-people-ologist,” and how wealth and the culture of the rich are wreaking havoc on the planet and on civilization at large.

Greenfield is best-known for her previous documentary “The Queen of Versailles” (2012), in which she tailed a billionaire couple and their family during their quest to build the largest house in the United States in, where else? —Florida. Beset by familial strife, construction issues and finally the 2009 recession, the film is both a deliriously voyeuristic ride as well as a trenchant social critique. Her new movie, “Generation Wealth,” is more broad in its scope: Greenfield’s camera moves back and forth in time, following strippers, bus drivers and hedge fund managers who desire youth, beauty, and grotesque displays of money, without ever being entirely sure why.

“I started looking back at my photography since the early nineties and seeing that in a way, all of the stories that I had been doing about consumerism and body image and fame and celebrity and the economic crisis, that in a way they were connected,” Greenfield told Salon’s Keith Spencer. “I kind of decided to do almost an archeological dig in my own work and almost look at the pictures as evidence of how we had changed as a culture.”

Greenfield continued, “What I came to was that they revealed a kind of fundamental shift in the American dream, that we had gone from a dream that prized hard work and frugality and discipline, to a culture that elevated bling and celebrity and narcissism.”

Watch the episode above to learn about how some of the subjects of “Generation Wealth” find redemption from their addictions to money, image and materialism — sometimes in prison, in family, or in renunciations of materialism — while others never do.


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