America is a country that celebrates wealth. It is also a country where millions struggle day to day, with no real hope of prosperity in their future.
Lauren Greenfield, a photojournalist, has been documenting this tension for nearly 30 years in her photography and films, which have covered subjects ranging from consumerism and body-image norms to the vast expansion of credit-card debt and the Great Recession.
I recently spoke with Greenfield about her latest book, Generation Wealth, an enormous undertaking made up of Greenfield’s photography as well as short reflections on wealth and money. Generation Wealth documents the last quarter-century of America’s obsession with and desire for money and the material goods that signify status—and what happens when people lose all of it. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Gillian B. White: This book seems perfectly timed. There’s not only an ongoing conversation about inequality, but the U.S. has a president who seems to fancy himself a populist, but has also made his name off of flaunting his wealth. What do you make of this moment?
Lauren Greenfield: I did not expect Trump to win the election, but when he did, it was kind of like the content of this work, of the 25 years, bearing out. In so many ways, Trump and his rise was the apotheosis of Generation Wealth. There were so many commonalities between him and David Siegel [one of the main subjects in Greenfield’s documentary, The Queen of Versailles, about a wealthy family before, during, and after the financial crisis], from the love for gold and the aesthetic of luxury, to the owning beauty pageants, to beautiful women in their personal life being an expression of their success, to making money in real estate. That’s more for Trump than for David Siegel, but certainly a theme in the book, the power of celebrity.