Review: Generation Wealth Is Part Autobiography, Part Cautionary Tale

Over her 25-plus years as a filmmaker and photographer, Lauren Greenfield has returned to the themes of wealth culture, economic disparity, the life of children of wealthy families, eating disorders, definitions of modern beauty, and the rotting husk of the American dream again and again, more recently in films like Thin and The Queen of Versailles.

Generation Wealth
Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

But with her latest documentary, Generation Wealth, Greenfield finds a way to not only tie all of these subjects together but show how they reflect things that were going on in her life when she shot those previous works. While the overall theme of wealth culture is the through-line of the movie, it is those moments when she turns her cameras on herself and her family that things get quite poignant and unexpectedly intimate.

Some of her most impressive and personal digging happens around her relationship with her mother, who would immerse herself into foreign cultures so completely that when she attempted to have Lauren join her in the field, it often resulted in her then-young daughter feeling very left out. When Greenfield’s parents broke up while she was still a girl, her mother opted to leave Lauren with her father while mom continued her work taking care of everyone else in the world but Lauren. To her mother, this just made sense, but to a kid, it felt like abandonment, pure and simple. The film takes moments like this and follows up on them by, in this case, interviewing her mother, with whom she is now quite close, and letting her know how she felt. The results are, not shockingly, devastating.

Whether she was aware of it or not while she shooting, Greenfield has chronicled the creation of her own family—her husband and two sons—whose interest in her work ebbs and flows, much like their comfort level around her when she points her camera at them. Of course, that’s only a fraction of what is covered in Generation Wealth, but it’s what she keeps coming back to and what she uses to link everything.

Much of what we see in the doc is Greenfield revisiting previous subjects of her photo essays and short films, some of which are quite old. We meet a toddler beauty pageant contestant and her scarily attentive mother; a once up-and-coming rapper who never quite made it; a group of high school teens whose families were rich and apparently never supervising them—all of whom seem like perfect examples of how money, the promise of money and the appearance of having it play into some sort of grander scheme. In more recent interviews, many of these subjects express regret for being somewhat obnoxious and see the film as more of a cautionary tale. You’ll get no argument from me on that point, and it works quite effectively.

But the film never fails to let its pendulum swing back toward Greenfield’s more personal remembrances. I love the moment when one of her sons (at a much younger age) tells her that there’s something deeply wrong with her for always wanting to point the camera at the family. A great deal of the movie is spent with Greenfield and her creative partner going through thousands of slides she took for a coffee table book. Hearing the artist talk about each photo session (often with accompanying video clips) makes us realize that Generation Wealth is also the autobiography of Lauren Greenfield (maybe not the title she would have chosen on the subject, but there you go).

The film loops and jumps around in time, but you always know exactly where you are in Greenfield’s world, whether it’s a long-term photography assignment, an admonishment from one of her sons, an on-topic exploration of strip clubs, or following women who spend tens of thousands of dollars they don’t have to get Botox injections or full-blown, top-to-bottom plastic surgery in a South American country because no doctor in America will do it and it’s less expensive. It’s slightly indulgent, but most of the great autobiographies are, and the end result manages—almost against the odds—to blend the personal and the professional in ways I didn’t think were possible. It’s a remarkable achievement of a story within all of the other stories Greenfield has been telling her entire life.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.