Versace galore, from ‘Generation Wealth’ by Lauren Greenfield
Versace galore, from ‘Generation Wealth’ by Lauren Greenfield

Lauren Greenfield, an incisive oracle who issues her findings in photographs and films, has spent 25 years inveighing against the corrupting power of wealth. Wielding her camera with a mixture of compassion, contempt and ruthless wit, she tells an old story of the victory of money over virtue.

On the cover of her new book, Generation Wealth (Phaidon), a willowy woman with a crown of blond braids wafts through her Moscow manor, accompanied by her daughter, a grim-faced princess astride a plush pony on wheels. The young mother, a former model and photographer, wears a sweater with the ironically melancholy phrase I’M A LUXURY. This Rapunzel is a shipping magnate’s wife, her tower a shiny prison with recessed lighting and marble floors. She confesses to Greenfield that she misses the cosiness of her old apartment in Riga and her life as a human being. Now she’s a personal accessory, like the diamonds, crocodile Birkin bag and private jets that she has been condemned to enjoy. Greenfield portrays the situation with a characteristic blend of acerbity and sympathy.

The 500-page tome — a golden slab, sweeping in scope — accompanies an exhibition of the same name now at the International Center of Photography, which covers Greenfield’s lifelong obsession with affluence’s toll. The show reads as a timely morality tale, fraught with ambivalence and empathy, implicating the photographer, her subjects and the rest of us at the same time.

Born in Boston, Greenfield grew up mostly in West LA, where, even as the child of upper-middle-class parents, she still felt poor. Her schoolmates owned horses and ice cream machines, and celebrated birthdays with ridiculously ostentatious displays. As an adolescent, she regarded her opulent habitat with all the envy and disgust that she later channelled into art.

After a stint as a photographer with National Geographic documenting a Maya village in Chiapas, Greenfield had an epiphany. Instead of travelling to scrutinise poor people and “exotic” cultures, she could apply the same anthropological methods in her own well-mown backyard. She returned to Hollywood and embedded herself in her old high school, finding subjects who opened up to her in part because they thought she’d understand. “Money ruins kids,” a 13-year-old said. “Money has ruined me.”

Her research bore early fruit in the then-shocking 1997 book Fast Forward, an anthology of prematurely aged youths, ranging from the jaded to depressingly self-aware. We first meet Phoebe at three, attending a Barneys opening in a pink tutu. She reclines dramatically, an array of high-priced shoes above her head like a consumerist fever dream. Greenfield catches up with her again over a decade later, looking alternately dreamy, hopeful, bored and eye-rollingly repelled by the values of her (separated) parents.

As always, the interview holds the key to the picture. “My dad drives a Mercedes S55,” the teenaged Phoebe says. “It’s a ridiculously fast car, like they have for NASCAR. Like, he’s just driving on Sunset — why do you need that kind of car? I see my dad two nights out of the week, it’s usually going out to nice dinners.” No amount of splurging can fill her tender void.

An ardent feminist, Greenfield is constantly checking the price tag on women’s eternal quest for perfection, beauty and youth. She haunts pageants, fat camps and plastic surgeons’ studios.

The pint-sized pageant contestant Eden Wood is both her mother’s narcissistic projection and a victim of the beauty biz. “I love the fact that I get to have a living baby doll,” Mommy declares, then asks her daughter: “What does beautiful mean to you?” Eden replies: “That I get money, and I’ll be a superstar. Money, money, money.”

Greenfield didn’t have to go undercover to report on America’s gilded exhibitionists, who must like her photographs enough to keep waving her through their gates. The hyper-rich see the life she photographs as everyday; for the rest of us it spills into grotesquerie. What makes Greenfield’s photos so powerful is their deadpan precision. She has no need to sermonise.

Her research has led her to lurid places and sad people. The inmates of glitzy palaces sport rubber boobs and rigid smiles. In VIP hip-hop clubs, women crawl gamely on the floor, gathering dollar bills sprinkled by wannabe lords of the manor. There’s no mistaking the photographer’s distaste for these scenes, especially when compared to her vignettes of French nobility. A high school year in Paris instilled a permanent admiration for the aristocracy, which honours “traditional” values like hunting on weekends, restoring the palais and doing things comme il faut. She’s happy when good taste trumps crude display.

Among the most vivid characters in this multi-decade saga is Jackie Siegel, wife of the Florida timeshare king David Siegel, who was last seen in Greenfield’s 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles. That film began with the building of the couple’s chateau-like mansion. Halfway through, it stumbled into the 2008 financial crisis, which reduced Jackie to flying commercial and discovering that there’s nobody left on the payroll to pick the dog’s poop off the living-room carpet.

Armed with her sense of righteousness, Greenfield expected a moral reckoning after the toxic bubble burst. She chronicles the rotting estates, empty pools, teary tycoons and suddenly homeless moneymen as if she were witnessing the end of days. And then it’s over, and the party grinds back into gear. The financial calamity that ruined lives all over the world proved to be merely a blip in the global march of materialism.

In the years since the crash, she’s sought out new plutocrats and ex-plutocrats in Iceland, Ireland, Russia and China, tracing the worldwide spread of excess. Still, it’s hard not to read the whole arc of her career as an overture to the presidency of Donald Trump. The gilt-slathering, pussy-grabbing vulgarian doesn’t make a personal appearance in her photos, but his spirit seems always to hover just outside the frame, nodding approvingly at the stew of cash, power and self-gratification.

It turns out that all along, Greenfield wasn’t just observing and recording the folkways of an isolated tribe, but a pandemic of decadence.

To January 7,

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Photograph: Lauren Greenfield

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