This weekend sees Lauren Greenfield return to the edge of the American Empire, as she follows up The Queen of Versailles to study the rise of the modern day’s materialistic, image-obsessed culture. The result is Generation Wealth, a personal journey and historical essay that bears witness to the global boom–bust economy, the corrupted American Dream, and the human costs of late stage capitalism, narcissism, and greed. (Read our review here.)
With the film now on DVD and VOD, we sit down with the director to discuss charting a major societal shift, making her work personal, and finding an audience through VOD.
How did the project come about, first of all?
I started thinking about it at the time of the financial crisis and when I was making The Queen of Versailles and at that point started feeling like the crash had turned all the stories that I had done since the early 90s into a kind of morality tale and that maybe they were linked in a way that told us a bigger story about how our culture had changed and how our values had changed. And I started looking back and started to feel like this period that I had worked from the early 90s was not just the time that I had chosen to photograph these subjects about materialism and celebrity and image but also kind of represented this sea change that contrasted with the previous generation and with my parents’ generation. And I started to think that the American Dream had kind of fundamentally changed. And so I began it as a book project and started to go back through all my old pictures and out-takes and when I was going through my early work from the 90s, found Kim Kardashian at 12 in the out-takes and thought that she was somehow a kind of cultural touchstone. And eventually, as I went back through and was making the book, I was also going through all the interviews and hearing the voices and at some point I just felt like I needed to make a movie about it because the photography book was satisfying, in terms of telling a complete story about what had happened, but I felt like a film could be more emotional and maybe allow the audience to identify more strongly with the characters, in a way where we can see what’s happened and also see how we’re all complicit.
How willing were your subjects to get back involved with the film?
That was a really interesting part for me – I remember my first producer, when I made my first film, Thin, said the moment of truth for you, as a filmmaker, is when you sit and watch the film with your subject and you hear what they have to say. And it was a little bit like that with this, in the sense that almost everybody I was going back to had had the experience already of being in my work and had to be okay with it and like what I was doing to participate again. And then there was also the question of how they felt about what had happened in their own life and whether they would want to share it, and for the most part people did participate and I was really happy about that. Of course, I had photographed hundreds of people – on the book there are 600 pictures. The people I went back to were people whose stories had evolved and changed in a way that, to me, really spoke to Generation Wealth. And kind of changed in unexpected ways too, but also maybe in ways that, if you had imagined it was all there at the beginning – which is kind of what I felt, that our culture had changed, but in a lot of ways, what I had seen in the 90s were the beginnings of what we were seeing now. And yeah, it was really exciting for me to be able to go back to that – especially the kids from L.A., who I had photographed as kids and now had kids of their own. This idea of generation really started with the movie, that wasn’t part of the book and then, just in terms of both having a historical perspective, thinking about this generation and then also the idea of parenting and what we pass on to our kids and what we inherit from our parents and kind of legacy versus agency and all of these themes kind of evolved as I was going.
Did you film with any subjects that you eventually cut out?
Yes. I work, for better or worse, in very much an essay form. I get that as a photographer and so sometimes I have to push myself to narrow down but that’s not my tendency, so – you know, I also work in a way where I don’t know what the ending is going to be, it’s kind of like the magic of cinema vérité, where you’re just kind of going and you find your story. I really didn’t know what the story was, even when I was making the book, I really had to kind of figure it out as I went along, and the same with the film and so there were people I interviewed in Ireland and China, a lot of interviews that I didn’t include. I also interviewed a lot of experts that I didn’t include, because I didn’t know what form, formally, the film would take for a long time and I thought I might need the experts to kind of ground the people’s experience and in the end I felt like the character’s stories were so strong that I wanted to just kind of let them, along with me, tell the story.
Were there any people you cut out that were particularly hard to lose?
You know, there were a lot of amazing stories that are in the book, there still are a lot of those stories. What I found when I did the film is that in my photography work, I often use repetition as a way to make points, like to see that the same thing is happening in Ireland and Iceland and Dubai and California and Florida, and what I found was that the film form did not tolerate any form of repetition, and so for example there was this amazing prostitute that I had photographed at the Bunny Ranch, who I loved. She had been a social worker and she was making $40,000 a year, came from a middle class family with traditional values and became a hooker when she realised she could make $40,000 in a week and bought the Mercedes that she always wanted and had the lifestyle that she wanted and she was a great subject, but I also realised, as I was making the film, that her part of the story represented women leveraging their assets for money, but that I also needed to show the harsher consequences down the road. And so then I sought out Kacey Jordan, who I had photographed after the bender with Charlie Sheen and her story had such tragic consequences that I felt were kind of my responsibility to tell, and I also really loved her and so when I first started, there were more characters and I was kind of playing them off each other, but I found that in the film form, it was better for me to go deeper into a smaller number of stories and that there wasn’t room for two white female sex workers in the movie. There were also some amazing stories from Ireland that I was really sad to cut, I had done a lot of work there and had some amazing voices there. And I would screen it for people and they would say, ‘there’s not room for Ireland and Iceland, you’ve got to choose’ and I really needed the change that happened in Iceland.
“A documentary is something the subject doesn’t control and I think that’s hard for rich people”
The film feels a lot like a follow-up to The Queen of Versailles – you can trace a through-line very clearly from that film to this film. You have clips of David and Jackie in it, but are those clips all from The Queen of Versailles?
Well, except for when they’re at the Trump rally. But I didn’t shoot that.
Did you consider having them in it and effectively following up their story, or is their story basically told and finished?
Well, in a way, they’re in it as part of the motivation for the project, because at the end of The Queen of Versailles, they learn their lesson and they tell us the lesson – David Siegel says, ‘I shouldn’t have built so big, I should have been happy with what I had, we should live within our means, family and Jackie is what matters, I could live in a two-bedroom and be fine with it’. That was kind of the insight that we had after the crash that felt very affirming, that we’d learned our lesson. And what happened with Generation Wealth is that in a lot of cases, we went back to the same thing and did not learn our lesson. David and Jackie, after the film, were able to borrow money to get the house back, they said they were going to continue building the house. That was disappointing for me, to see that that’s what they learned, they just wanted to go back to it.
Isn’t that why they should have been in the movie?
Well, that’s what the Trump piece kind of signifies for me. And that also inspired the look at addiction. But, I mean, practically it was impossible, because there was another very interesting PostScript to The Queen of Versailles, which is that when we premiered at Sundance, Jackie came and promoted the film and blew kisses to the audience and David, without seeing the film, sued myself and Sundance for the Sundance programme saying it was a riches to rags story, which he didn’t realise at the time was his own quote. And so we ended up winning the lawsuit and Jackie and I still talk, and she has come to Generation Wealth the show and bought books and would love to do something more together, but I don’t think David is going to want that. He paid a big fine in the lawsuit and he just likes – he really liked the movie, he said, but he hated the ending. And this was something that – a documentary film is something that the subject doesn’t control and I think that’s hard for rich people, who are used to controlling images of themselves and that’s also another motivation for me doing this work, because I learned when I was a student, that in the archives, in the photo archives, there was very little reportage of the rich, because they had traditionally controlled their images and so the pictures were commissioned portraits or society pictures. And so that was actually what really attracted me with Jackie and Siegel, was how open she was, and how rare a glimpse it was into that lifestyle. And so I was interested in it before they hit hard times.
“I feel like I’m interviewing people, but in the process, I’m learning about myself”
Obviously you didn’t start out to make this as personal a film as it becomes – how aware were you of it during the filming? Was there a turning point, or was it something that came together in the edit?
A little bit of both, because I was shooting while I was editing. The edit was very long, we ended up cutting for 30 months. And on one hand, that’s kind of an editor’s nightmare, because you never plan for that long, and on the other hand, I think it really allowed the film to evolve, but in some ways the vérité and the unexpected that happens with this movie happened during the edit, and part of it was, as I started to see things differently in the edit, it affected the way I shot. And part of it was also the characters, going back to them and understanding which ones were really important, and then their lives evolving in ways I couldn’t have expected. But I definitely did not expect it to be a personal film, but that’s what I love about filmmaking and about photography, is the decisive moment. I just think it’s so boring and it’s so not my style to storyboard a film or know the ending, it’s always – when I’m trying to get funding it’s always a struggle to pretend that you know what the ending is going to be, because to me, the magic is really what happens and if you’re really in it, then something can happen. I think that that’s kind of what happened with this film – I was really in it, I was completely overwhelmed by the process and also making the book, and I think as I was really overwhelmed, it kind of forced me to wonder why I was doing it and why I was so addicted to something that in a way seemed very irrational, like going through half a million pictures.
And I think as I was listening to the stories of the people I was going back to, like Florian, who – I remember being in a hotel room with him in Germany, and he was saying the cost of his work on his family and being on 300 calls a day and being completely out of communication, and I was far from home, on my way to Iceland, on a four week trip and I just couldn’t help but see the parallels. I remember he, at one point said – I said why are you attracted to all this excess, women and money, and he said work and kind of looked at me, knowing that was something that we shared. And I think that is kind of like the way you learn from your children and I included someone saying about that at the end, about how your children are teachers – I feel like I’m interviewing people, but in the process, I’m learning about myself. And so I wanted to reflect that, and I also felt like it represented this idea that I was trying to say about how we are all complicit, and if you think you can’t identify with the struggles of Florian, or Cathy or Daphne, because she’s a porn star, or he’s a banker who made bad choices or whatever, then I’ve kind of failed, because I want you to be able to identify with those people too. And I felt like in a way, I was a way to help the audience identify more with them. And then I also felt like I had spent my whole career going really deep into people’s lives and kind of owed my stories to them being willing to be vulnerable on camera, because they saw the value of it. So I didn’t try to put myself in, but there was a point when I saw there was value to the story, that I felt like I had to be willing to go there too.
But that’s also different from going, ‘Wait a minute, this is the movie’…
Yeah, it took a while to figure that out. It was a process. I mean, I think the interview with Noah [Lauren’s son], where he said the damage was done, was a turning point, but it wasn’t a turning point that I recognised immediately, like I had dinner with Frank [Lauren’s husband] and Gabriel [Lauren’s other son] after that I was really sad and Gabriel was like, ‘there’s no damage’, and Frank’s like, ‘he’s being a teenager’ and I really didn’t think at that point it would be in the movie, but I think that’s what’s so great about the editor-director relationship on a doc, is an editor is almost like a co-director and I think my editors were able to also challenge me. My editor Aaron Wickenden had done movies about artists, he made the Vivian Maier documentary, and in the beginning he kept putting me in, like a third person, and I was like, ‘This is my movie, like I can’t be a third person, you can’t make me look good, you can’t do this, I’m not a dead artist, this is a movie by me’. But he saw that I had to be kind of the connective tissue to hold it together in a way, and so I think it was kind of that back and forth where we landed on it. And I remember when I had my 50th birthday – our anniversary party, my editors were like, ‘Do you want to film it?’ and Frank was like, ‘No, we have to have some boundaries’, and then we were like – my editor wanted her boyfriend to film it with a little camera, I was like, ‘Ok, film it, we’ll have it, just in case’. So they kind of pushed me in that way, but it wasn’t going anywhere for me, it wasn’t part of the film, but when – I mean there were two things, when Noah said the damage was done and then when I kind of pushed my Mom about my childhood memories. And then when we had that iPhone thing where Frank took the camera from me and turned it on me. I think that allowed it to actually have like a destination, like to have a narrative arc.
You started shooting this after the financial crisis, which was before Trump. Do you feel that Trump is absolutely – I mean, in a way, Trump kind of works for you in this movie…
Yeah, I mean, Trump, I think validates the journey, in a way. Sometimes I’ve shot a story for a magazine, or sometimes I feel like my work has been kind of thought of as marginal or vulgar or the kind of things we don’t always want to look at, and I feel like Trump kind of woke us up to the fact that this is us, and that we are a kind of reality show-loving culture with the American Dream really co-opted by the values of capitalism and that that is how we live our daily lives and that we need to face that. Trump, in the rally where David and Jackie Siegel are in the front row, he says, ‘This isn’t about me, it’s about you’, and I think that’s right, that I tried to think of Trump as a kind of symptom of who we are, an expression of who we are and I feel like that that’s the case, that he’s kind of the apotheosis of Generation Wealth, and I don’t want to let him take over the film either, because I feel like this is about us and, in a way, he’s kind of an expression of our pathology.
I think it also made me feel differently about the ending. I hadn’t done the ending when Trump was elected and the ending of the book, which I had done when Trump was elected, ends in a very dark way, as a kind of cautionary tale and a wake up, where I’m trying to wake people up. And in the movie, I felt like I needed to have a way of expressing some hope and some possibility for change or a shift, and so I started really thinking about the hope that I got from all of the insights of the subjects and this kind of idea of an awakening after a crash and this metaphor of addiction where when you’re addicted to something you can’t recover until you hit rock bottom. And in this, at the end of the second act, Chris Hedges talks about how it’s kind of going towards the apocalypse and the next time we’re all going to blow up. And in one ending that my editor had done, that was the end, and I really felt strongly that that’s not the end, that’s not what I want to leave people with, but what I felt was that in the collapse, there’s an opportunity for insight and an opportunity for change and agency and then I started seeing how that was the case in a lot of people’s stories. And so, I still feel like, you know, if we hadn’t had Harvey Weinstein, we might not have had #MeToo. And maybe Trump is what we need to kind of see a mirror of ourselves and all of its flaws.
Again, I don’t know if it’s serendipity or whatever, in terms of the timing of your film, but we had that whole thing with Kim Kardashian and Trump in the news recently…
Oh my God! My old producer, my producer on Queen of Versailles sent that to me and said, ‘Is this an ad for Generation Wealth?’ Because I had been talking about how the three symbols for me, of this work, are the Birkin bag, Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump. And then to see them together, I was just thinking like, if only she was holding a Hermes Birkin bag! But no, it’s crazy. I mean, it’s real it’s like Lil’ Magic, the manager of the strip club in Atlanta says, we don’t know the difference between entertainment and reality. And I think that’s where a lot of the anxiety and pathology of the subjects and also just us, in general, comes from is that we’re comparing ourselves to not only unrealistic models but fictional characters and fictional images.
“We used to compare ourselves with our neighbours and now we spend more time with people we know from TV”
Are you referring to the Kardashians?
Well, I’m referring to a bigger phenomenon, which is like the thing I saw over the 25 years, and I was really inspired by an economist, who said that in the past we used to compare ourselves with our neighbours and keeping up with the Joneses, and now we spend more time with people we know from television than our real neighbours. And we compare, we want what they have. And so, with Kim Kardashian, it’s not only completely unrealistic, it’s downright fictional and so I feel like that is a broader phenomenon. And with social media, even worse.
Did you consider reaching out to Kim Kardashian, given that you’ve got her photograph?
I don’t think we ever did. I mean, of course, it would have been my dream, and there was one point where I thought about the opportunity, she put herself in for a fashion spread and then it didn’t work out. And then I tried for Donald Trump, but he was still on The Apprentice, this was before he’d run for President. But we actually were setting it up, we were quite close, and then he ran for President and they cancelled the show and that was that. I would have loved to, but the thing about photographing celebrities, which is why I almost never do it, is that a lot of celebrities want to be able to give approval, and, as a journalist, I don’t think that’s right. And I think Kim Kardashian would be a hard person to let have that control, because she’s so – I mean that’s what reality TV is, that’s why it’s fictional, because it’s not reality, and the executive producers are controlling the images. But she did Instagram my picture of her when the book came out!
Ha ha! Okay, so she’s at least aware of the book…
Well, there was a picture published by W magazine, so she definitely reads W magazine, I don’t know if she knows what the book is.
You’re being distributed by Amazon Studios in the USA. What are your feelings about video on-demand, in terms of documentaries finding audiences that way?
Well, I have two feelings about it. I love the theatrical experience, particularly for this movie. I’ve definitely noticed a difference between seeing it in a group, on the big screen, and seeing it alone. The moderator at the Berlin Film Festival said that when he watched it alone, he thought it was a tragedy, and when he watched it in the theatre, he thought it was a comedy. Not that it doesn’t have value as a tragedy, but it is nice, I think to have that full experience. When I’ve been in cinemas, I’ve heard people laughing and also crying and also shouting out or gasping.
I suppose it’s fairer to say that he didn’t realise how funny it was – it’s not exactly a comedy…
Right. And I have to say, I didn’t realise it was funny either, for a lot of the time I was making it. And I think some of the laughs that are happening in the film are releases, but there’s still something very affirming about that communal experience. On the other hand, what I’ve always been interested in my work is getting it out to the largest audience, and in this film, particularly the most kind of democratic, biggest audience. I became a photographer to have my work in magazines, not to be in the art galleries. Not that I didn’t like being in an art gallery, but that’s not what it was for. And so, for me, to be able to stream on Amazon [Prime Video] is a huge opportunity, because it’s just such a big number of people that will get to see it all over the world, and so I’m really pleased about that. So, in a way, Amazon was really the best of both worlds, because they believe in doing a theatrical and we’re having a theatrical release and then streaming behind it.
“What I’ve always been interested in my work is getting it out to the largest audience”
I specifically wanted to ask you about The Queen of Versailles being on Netflix and how that found an audience there
Yeah. And you really felt it, because it had a really good theatrical run in the US and then it was on television and then it was streaming. It was my first film in the theatre, so I was really excited and happy that people came out for it, but nothing in comparison to the numbers once it was on Netflix. And Netflix gave it a really good run, and they would often have it on their Favourites or whatever, when you come to it, and it was really exciting because it was an incredible, it felt like saturation, of people that I never would have reached. And it almost didn’t matter that it was a documentary – people tuned who weren’t necessarily looking for a documentary and that was really exciting about the mainstreaming of documentary. I mean, my first film, Thin, was on HBO and I don’t think that would have gotten a theatrical audience, and it reached so many people. So I think you just want people to see the film. I mean, because this film is very photographic and complex, if people watch it at home, I hope they watch it on a big screen and not on their phone, because definitely the scale is important. In a film about people thinking bigger is better, you need big to get the experience.
Which other documentary filmmakers do you admire? And have any of them been influential?
Well, one person who advised me on this film was Robb Moss, who’s the head of the Harvard Film Department and he has long made personal films, he did one called The Same River Twice, and he’s there with Ross McElwee, who did Sherman’s March, and when I was in school, I was kind of steeped in their personal filmmaking but that was not me. And so for this I was like, for a long time, I didn’t want to do it, because I kind of think I knew, somewhere, it would be a personal film, but he helped me with it. So both of them have been influences, Ross and Robb. And then on the other side, Frederick Wiseman and the kind of cinema vérité of institutions and that kind of sociological look. Grey Gardens was an influence especially for Queen of Versailles. I mean, I’m always inspired by Errol Morris’ unique take on things, but my work is quite different from his.
Are you much of a VOD fan yourself? Do you watch stuff on VOD?
Not as much as I would like or as I think I should, in the sense that I work a lot. A lot of time, I’m working on the road and in a way when I’m on the road, it’s my chance to – you know, I’m not with my kids at night and so it’s my chance to – well, especially in Generation Wealth, which is particularly all-encompassing, so I was reading hundreds of interviews, so I never – it’s actually a huge relief now, because I feel like at night, it’s my own. Right now, I’m working with a Danish editor and at 7 o’clock he’s done, and so now at night, I can really feel free after. I mean, when my kids were young, I would put them to bed and then I would go back to work, I mean even when I was working on this. And my edit room is behind my house, so we would just continue working. But anyway, I’ve started to watch movies again, I went to A Woman Captured [at Sheffield Doc/Fest] this morning and I’ve been going to more and I actually learned so much that comes back into my own films. I mean, when I was at Sundance a few years ago, I watched a film about Gloria Vanderbilt and it was completely different than anything that I do, but the filmmaker had Anderson Cooper interviewing Gloria Vanderbilt, who was his mother. And that got the wheels turning for me, like, I was going to have the curator of my show at that point interview my mother and then I was like, ‘What the hell? I need to interview her!’ So yeah, I think it’s important, but I can’t say I watch a lot, because I just don’t have time. I don’t watch much TV. But I love going to festivals! I even go to Sundance a lot, when I don’t have a film, because I love having that chance to see all those movies and see it with the filmmaker there.
Final Photo: Jo Davidson / Silverhub for Sundance London