Getting to the Bottom of Americans' Fascination With Wealth

The photojournalist Lauren Greenfield has spent the past 25 years documenting the country's attitudes toward money and status.

Limo Bob, owner of a 100-foot limo that made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s longest limousine
Limo Bob, owner of a 100-foot limo that made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s longest limousine (Lauren Greenfield)

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.

But I think in terms of the populist part, there’s a quote from Fran Lebowitz that I put in the front of the book about how Americans don't resent the rich because they always imagine that will be them someday. I think that is part of the admiration for Trump. Unlike some other cultures that resent the rich or resent the upper class, Americans admire wealth.

White: So you think Trump’s appeal has to do with people thinking that someday they could be as financially successful as he is?

Greenfield: I think that goes back to the beginning of this work [documenting wealth and celebrity] in the Reagan ’80s and this idea that having money makes you a good person. And so I think that's why there's not a class struggle with Trump but an admiration. And then I think he also spoke to the dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement of people who have been left behind from the crash, which is a lot of people. In the “Fall” chapter, there’s a subject named Chuck who worked in the GM factory that was closed down in his town. There was a real loss and suffering, particularly for a male breadwinner who then not only has no job but no hope for a job. All of the material things that made him a successful man—the house, he had a tanning bed in his house, a new car in the GM parking lot—to go from that to losing your house to foreclosure. The other piece of it is this living in an illusion. A lot of the pictures in the book speak to that, living in this media-driven fantasy world. And I think Trump, his rise speaks to that too.

Ilona, a wealthy Russian woman, with her young daughter (Lauren Greenfield)

White: You grew up in California, around a lot of wealth, but not necessarily part of it. How did your interaction with extreme wealth as a kid inform your work?

Greenfield: That’s kind of where the story starts. My first project was about growing up in LA, and the first chapter of the book Fast Forward really came out of my own experience. My parents are professors, academics, and we lived in Venice, which at the time was not the gentrified place it is now. In 11th grade, I went to private school. That was the first time I was in this world of extreme wealth and, kind of ’80s-style-LA wealth. I grew up very middle-class with a lot of privilege by any standard, and my parents really valued education and travel, but what they didn’t value was designer clothes or getting a car at 16. I felt like I wanted those things. And so that in a way inspired this project. If I had everything I needed, and still felt like I didn’t have enough, then how strong is this culture?

White: Is there an answer to that—how strong this desire is and where it came from?

Greenfield: I was really influenced by Juliet Schor’s concept of the vertical reference group, and how we changed who we compared ourselves to. We used to compare ourselves to our neighbors who we knew and aspired to the neighbor who had a little bit more. Then we started watching TV more and knowing the characters on TV better than our neighbors, and aspiring to who we saw on TV, which was much, much different. Keeping up with the Joneses literally became keeping up with the Kardashians. Affluent lifestyles are more dominant on television and in the media, and when you’re exposed to that, you think that people have more than they do. That stimulates desire.

White: There are some really striking racial and gender dynamics afoot here too.

Greenfield: I’ve done a lot of work on girls and body-image insecurities and advertising with relation to girls, but in the context of this work, I really started looking at how capitalism exploits these insecurities, that the body-image insecurities were a really great technique to create very avid consumers. If you tell somebody they’re less-than, and a product will help them fix that, you have a great consumer for that product. And once that’s fixed, there’s something more to fix. So the insecurity drives consumerism in a kind of addictive way. You never really get there and it never really satisfies in the way that we think it will.

I think you can apply the same lens to people who are poor in a society that values wealth, people who are young in a society that values knowledge and maturity, people who are old in a society that values youth, especially a young body.

White: I noticed photos of lots of wealthy white kids trying to emulate rappers and hip-hop culture. But then you pan to the rappers who are creating that culture, and many aren’t (yet) living a luxurious lifestyle in the early ’90s.

Greenfield: A lot of people in the book are not actually wealthy. The work is really about aspiring to wealth and the influence of affluence and about our values more than what we actually have. David McWilliams, an economist from Ireland, has a great line where he says that debt made us feel rich when actually it made us poor. Behind a lot of this work is wanting to feel rich, and that’s why the boom and the bust is such an important part of this work, because the easy credit gave us the ability to feel rich and to live out these media-driven fantasies, regardless of what we actually had or our ability to pay it back.

In a way, gender is kind of a case study for a lot of other kinds of groups, or could be applied, I think with hip-hop, the idea of “fake it till you make it” is so important and there’s a lot of amazing expression of that in hip-hop. In hip-hop, what I saw back in the early ’90s was this powerful homogenizing force, where rich kids wanted the gangster lifestyle and the gangster fashion and music and the hardness of the look, and then on the other side kids from the inner city were emulating the trappings of wealth, and it was the beginning of the rise of bling and the status that brought, and they were using rap to get out. So there was this kind of shared culture that I don’t think the kids’ parents had that brought them together, but it was really around an image-based culture.

A page in Greenfield's book features the bejeweled grill of rapper Lil Jon, and a woman shopping on Rodeo Drive. (Lauren Greenfield)

White: Do you think people were fundamentally changed by the loss that occurred during the recession, or does the love of celebrity and materialism keep winning out?

Greenfield: I did feel like the crash was this morality tale that we were all going to learn from. I think I felt that most powerfully from David and Jackie Siegel’s story. He says, at the end of Queen of Versailles, something like, We shouldn't have built so many buildings, we should be happy with having less, we should live within our means.” No one is without guilt, and that was so powerful for me to have him teach that lesson. After, I think the real question is, does that insight extend beyond the period of suffering? For David Siegel, it did not. After, at the end of the movie, Versailles is in foreclosure. But he ended up borrowing money, getting Versailles back. After the crash it seemed like inequality got worse, and David McWilliams, the economist in the book, said crashes are marketed like we're all getting poor together, but really it's an opportunity for the rich to buy the assets of the recently impoverished.

The last chapter is called “Make It Rain” and it takes place after the recession in a club in Las Vegas where people are spending up to $50,000 a night on bottle service and also in a strip club in Atlanta where people are literally throwing thousands of dollars in the air to show off and have picked up off of the floor by strippers. There’s a kind of “dancing on the deck of the Titanic” feeling, like the end of an empire. I think that the backdrop of all of this is having more inequality and less social mobility than in prior generations, so real social mobility has been replaced by a kind of fictitious social mobility—bling, surface image.

I think the insights are real—that’s kind of the purpose of the book, to see these people in these extreme journeys where we do have the benefits of learning from their insights. But as a culture, as a whole, we’re not living according to those insights, and I think that what the work shows is that we are on an unsustainable path.

White: The wealthy, at least those who aren’t celebrities, often try to be more guarded about their personal lives. But you manage to capture some pretty intimate moments. Why do you think people allowed you to see and document as much as they did?

Greenfield: In terms of why people participated, it’s the full gamut. There are so many people in the book. Cathy, for example, who lives in the trailer, she had a really hard time sharing her story. She felt a lot of shame with losing her home and putting too much on her credit cards. The show [featuring images from Generation Wealth] opened in LA a couple weeks ago and a lot of the subjects came. Cathy was one of the people who came, and she loved it and it was a really good experience for her, but it was also really emotional. She was in tears and she said she still is not proud of her story. I think there’s some validation in sharing it and seeing that it’s a story that other people can relate to.

I think what you see in the book is that we were all caught up in these forces, so if somebody like Cathy is blaming herself it maybe gives a bigger perspective. I think with David and Jackie, they never blamed themselves. David was very upset with his investors, the lenders, and with the banks. It wasn’t until the very end that he took some responsibility, but he felt he was in this heroic struggle. He thought that the end of the movie was going to be his winning the building, winning the struggle, so he was fine with me getting the drama of the struggle because it was going to have a happy ending.

White: Were there subjects who really stuck with you?

Greenfield: Oh, yeah. Especially in the time of Facebook, I’m in touch with a lot of the kids, and it’s been really exciting to see the kids from Fast Forward grow up and have kids of their own. When I started Fast Forward, I was going back not that long after college to explore what had been an ambivalent adolescence for myself, and then in the course of it became a parent myself and now have teenagers. So I’ve tracked the cultural pressures at different ages. When I came back from a project in Mexico, I went to the dermatologist, I think I was about 26, and I don’t think I had even been to a dermatologist, but I went in LA and he offered me botox. I didn’t know what that was, and I didn’t know I had wrinkles. That’s what consumerism does to you. I didn’t know there was a problem until he introduced it. You’re going to show it off, you’re going to leverage it, you’re going to focus on it, but what happens when you lose that? It becomes a desperate struggle.

White: Given how sensitive a subject wealth inequality is at the moment, are you at all concerned with how the book will be received on either end of the economic ladder?

Greenfield: Part of the content is this ambivalent relationship that we have with wealth and success and the shiny and the luxurious. For example, the book is bound in gold silk, so it’s both beautiful and ironic. And in the museum show, the walls, before you walk in, are painted gold. I’m documenting and I’m commenting on the surfaces. I’m also using the language of wealth and luxury and popular culture to tell the story. I’ve often tried to distill extreme moments that reveal the culture that we live in.

You go in kind of laughing and thinking it’s going to be this outsized tale of these crazy people, and then you realize that they’re not as crazy as you thought. By the end you empathize with them in an unexpected way. I made a book about eating disorders called Thin, and Joan Brumberg, a social historian that I worked with, said psychopathologies come and go, but they always tell us about the historical times in which they were produced. I think that there’s a lot of addictive qualities that you see in this book, from buying to plastic surgery to debt. It is a kind of pathology of our time, one that few of us are immune to.