Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield and I are supposed to speak at the London Hotel, a swanky spot mere blocks from the legendary Sunset Strip that boasts of having Beverly Hill's largest suites. Celebrities and athleisure-wearing housewives mill about the lobby, and the studio behind her newest documentary, Generation Wealth, has rented a suite for Greenfield for the day. The walls are lined with flat-screen TVs and shelves full of expensive books that will never be read, the latter sure to make anyone who's seen the film raise an eyebrow. It's appropriate, in an ironic sense, to be promoting Generation Wealth here, Greenfield's damning look at our image-obsessed culture of wealth.
"I had nothing to do with the suite!" she laughs when she phones the next day, her overlapping press schedule having forced her to rush off to another engagement before we had a chance to talk. Generation Wealth serves as both a cautionary tale and a retrospective of Greenfield's 25-something years of photographing porn stars, Russian oligarchs and child beauty queens. Ahead of the film's release on July 20, she discusses with ET what draws her to document the lifestyles of the rich and famous (her last documentary was 2012's exceptional, excoriating The Queen of Versailles, about the family that set out to build the biggest home in America) and why we shouldn't celebrate Kylie Jenner's status as the "world's youngest self-made billionaire."
ET: After The Queen of Versailles, it would have been understandable if you'd been so turned off by seeing the dark side of wealth that you had turned away from the subject. Instead, you dive in even further with this film. Why?
Lauren Greenfield: Well, at the end of Queen of Versailles, I really felt affirmed by the lessons learned. I was very hopeful because even David and Jackie Siegel, who had been sooo excessive and outsized, had learned their lessons from the consequences of the crash. And David speaks those lessons -- he says, "We shouldn't live so big. We should live within our means. I shouldn't have built so much." -- and Jackie wants to be with her family and says she would be fine in a two-bedroom house. The real disillusionment came after, when we kind of relapsed and went back to the same thing, and David and Jackie got the land back and started building the house again.
Our banks got bailed out and as our economy recovered, people started going back to the same things and the insights that people had gained during the crash didn't sustain. It got me thinking about this striving for wealth and striving for more in terms of addition. And it made me want to go back and look at the last 25 years in terms of how we had changed as a culture and how we'd gotten here. This wasn't just behavior that happened in the few years leading up to the crash, [but] this was actually a shift in our values that had been going on since the '80s.
I know that the Siegels spoke out, somewhat publicly, against your documentary after it was released.
You repurpose footage from The Queen of Versailles, but did you try reaching out to film with the Siegels again?
It was a little more complicated than that. Jackie loved the film and promoted it with me for a year -- she came to Sundance and she went to Helsinki with me and London -- and David Siegel sued me and Sundance for calling it a "riches-to-rags story" without realizing that was his quote from within the film. And so, it was a crazy drama, but Jackie and I remained in touch the whole time and we eventually won the lawsuit. But Jackie has been very supportive and she's come to Generation Wealth -- the [gallery] shows -- and she bought the book and she came to Sundance and saw the movie. But David doesn't want to be filmed anymore.
Did you consider filming with just Jackie?
Well, I don't think David would allow that.
Generation Wealth could have been a completely objective, third-person look at the subjects in the film. How and why did you decide that you wanted to put yourself in there, too? And to include your children and your parents?
I started off interviewing my parents and my kids more as representatives of their generation, in terms of looking at how our culture had changed. But what ended up coming out of those interviews, in a way, was a lot more profound. It made me see connections between what I was going through and what my family was going through and my subjects. As I started realizing all of the striving of the subjects was really about addiction -- whether it was money or fame or youth, that there was an addictive quality to all of the things we are striving for -- I realized in the course of talking to one of the subjects, [hedge funder] Florian Homm, that my work was also a kind of addiction. That also came up in the interview with my son, which really made me think about how I'm complicit and how we're all complicit in Generation Wealth. I wanted to include it, because I felt like I wanted to say I'm not above Generation Wealth. None of us are. We're all part of this matrix and all we can do is try to see it and deconstruct it and maybe have a chance to get out of it. [Laughs.]
When things started coming up in my own life that were really relevant to the struggles that the subjects were going through, I wanted to be transparent about that and be as honest and tough on myself as I am in my interviews. I have been on this 25-year journey and I've learned about myself along the way and I wanted to include that as part of the story, also so that the audience doesn't say, like, Who are these crazy people?! We have a hedge fund banker, we have a porn star, we have a child beauty pageant star. You could say it's not, like, regular people. So, in a way, I wanted to be in there more as a regular person, because the reason all of these subjects are really important is because they do speak to the mainstream pressures on us all. For me, documenting the popular culture and how it affects us on a daily basis, I've always looked at extremes as a way to see the mainstream, because, it's kind of like the air we breathe. It's all around us. It's hard to see and it's hard to see how it affects us, without seeing the extremes.
The Kardashians act as a sort of through line for the film, including footage from Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Kim's sex tape. Did you reach out to see if any of the Kardashians would be interviewed for the film?
I think we might have put in a request to Kim Kardashian, but I knew that was going to be very tough, because I've done enough in photography with celebrities to have a sense of what that process would be. I mean, it would have a dream to sit down with Kim Kardashian. When I was filming my films, Kids + Money, I was filming a spa birthday party [for] one of the characters in that film, and Kylie Jenner was there just as a kid at the spa birthday party. But as an interview, I never got that chance.
I think that Kim Kardashian is a really important cultural touchstone for the film and for me and for Generation Wealth, because one of the things I found when I first started going through my outtakes was a picture of her at 12, which I include in the film. She started in that L.A. of the '90s that was the beginning of this work and then she became a driver of so many of the values, from materialism to the idea that you can start with a sex tape and become a very legitimate, mainstream star and there's moral baggage to kids or parents or to the culture by starting with a sex tape. It's not a scarlet letter, it's a badge of honor. That kind of post-moral world that she represents is very much a part of Generation Wealth, where our metric for success is really money and lifestyle. And then the other piece of it was just our comparison group, which I think is the biggest driver of Generation Wealth, that we used to compare ourselves to people that we knew -- our neighbor, the other kid in school, the person who lived down the street -- wanting those jeans or wanting that car or wanting the slightly better model house. Now, we spend more time with the characters that we know on TV than our actual friends and neighbors and start wanting what they have. So, our comparison group is extremely unattainable and unrealistic. It's kind of fictional. Even in social media, we're comparing ourselves against a airbrushed, curated, retouched world that we can never attain and I think that really drives this lack of satisfaction and desire for more.
Speaking of Kylie, she is on the cover of Forbes' "America's Women Billionaires" issue, which says she's worth $900 million and will become the youngest self-made billionaire -- or as self-made as you can be having been born into wealth. The response has been mixed. Do you think that is something worth celebrating?
Um-- No. I think that what we saw in the recent UN report on poverty is that inequality has never been so extreme in this country. That's the other thing that's happened over these 25 years is that we've never seen so much concentration of wealth in the hands of the few since the Gilded Age and we've never seen so much lack of mobility. In the report, it said that your zip code was your best predictor of your future. So, we have less intergenerational social mobility than we've ever had, and I think that's really devastating for the American Dream and just for people's ethos of hard work when they get up in the morning. I think that's why one of the things we see in the film and we hear from [social critic] Chris Hedges is that fictitious social mobility expressed as bling and as fake-it-till-you-make-it and as diamonds in our mouth is a kind of replacement for the real social mobility that used to be at the heart of the American Dream.
You mentioned that the Siegels relapsed after learning their lessons at the end of The Queen of Versailles. At the end of this film, we're similarly left on a hopeful note, with many of these people having learned their lessons or taken something from their rise and fall. But there is also extensive talk about whether we are a culture in decline. After shooting this, where do you land? Do you think some lessons will stick this time? Or do you think we are in decline?
I think we're in decline, and I think there's hope in the possibility that we could turn it around. I feel like I got hope from the insights that the subjects in the film learned through their journeys, sometimes through the most extreme journeys imaginable -- like Florian, being the personification of greed and attaining so much money and then falling and realizing that he was chasing the wrong god, and that we're all kind of doomed if we stay on that chain. So, I feel like some of the subjects learn their lessons. Some, we don't know. I mean, I think with Florian, he's learned his lesson, but, as his son's girlfriend says, we don't know if the lesson is just a function of his suffering or is just limited to the time of suffering. I would say with David and Jackie, their lessons were limited to their time of suffering. But in the addiction metaphor, I think when you hit rock bottom, there is that possibility for recovery. I think in the choices that we see some of the people making at the end [of the film] and particularly in their children and in the next generation, there is hope for recovery and choosing a different life.