Book Review: Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield

Ilona at home with her daughter, Michelle, 4, Moscow, 2012. Ilona’s sweater was produced for her in a custom color by her friend Andrey Artyomov, whose Walk of Shame fashion line is popular among the wives of oligarchs. Photograph and text © 2017 Lauren Greenfield

Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield is both a retrospective and an investigation into the subject of wealth over the last twenty-five years. Greenfield has traveled the world — from Los Angeles to Moscow, Dubai to China — bearing witness to the global boom-and-bust economy and documenting its complicated consequences. Provoking serious reflection, this book is not about the rich, but about the desire to be wealthy, at any cost.

The publication of Generation Wealth couldn’t be more timely. The book published and was available four months after the January 2017 presidential inauguration. The idea of what wealth meant, or implied influence from, was a topic that was seemingly a part of each news broadcast. But this book review is not about politics per se, nor is it my intent to make it one. The work of Lauren Greenfield covers the idea of the tireless pursuit of money, status, beauty, and, of course, fame.

Christina, 21, a Walmart pharmacy technician, en route to her wedding in Cinderella’s glass coach, drawn by six miniature white ponies and with bewigged coachman, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 2013. Photograph and text © 2017 Lauren Greenfield

The broad idea of what aspect of wealth means to different people is attentively covered by Greenfield in Generation Wealth. Greenfield addressed this subject in an interview with Gillian White from The Atlantic. Greenfield said, “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.”

The book includes a forward by Juliet Schor, who is an economist and sociologist at Boston College. Schor imparts the concept of the vertical reference group, and how we changed who we compared ourselves to in order to feel positive self-worth. Greenfield said, “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.”

Xue Qiwen, 43, in her Shanghai apartment, decorated with furniture from her favorite brand, Versace, 2005. In 1994 Xue started a company that sells industrial cable and has since run four more. She is a member of three golf clubs, each costing approximately $100,000 to join. Photograph and text © 2017 Lauren Greenfield

The book makes an impact without even cracking the spine. It is heavy. It is wrapped in a metallic gold silk cover. Art in America described it as “[A] five-hundred-page doorstopper wrapped in a sensationally gilded jacket.” While that description does not do the subject matter any justice, Greenfield herself says this about the book and the corresponding exhibitions of the work this year, “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 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.”

Part journalistic exploration, part socioeconomic study — Generation Wealth is a sobering look at what lengths people will go to, essentially, attain self-worth through external means. But on the surface, it is a extraordinary visual record of rampant materialism and our growing global obsession with wealth.

Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield
Format: Hardback
Size: 305 x 229 mm (12 x 9 in)
Pages: 504 pp
Illustrations: 625 illustrations
ISBN: 9780714872124

Lauren Greenfield is an Emmy-award-winning photographer and filmmaker. A preeminent chronicler of youth culture, gender, and consumerism, her documentary The Queen of Versailles won the Best Documentary Director Award at Sundance in 2012. Her photographs have been widely published, exhibited — and collected — and her Super Bowl commercial, Like a Girl, went viral and swept the advertising awards of 2015.

To learn more about Lauren Greenfield, visit her website. To order a copy of Generation Wealth, please visit Phaidon’s website.

Originally published at F-Stop Magazine.