By Richard Godwin
Wealthy Russians commuting in private jets, spoilt, rich Americans living it up in Beverly Hills – Lauren Greenfield has got close to them all. Richard Godwin meets the woman who persuaded the world’s billionaires to let her into their world – and capture it on film
How on earth does Lauren Greenfield get them to do it? Walking among her photographs of the rich, the uber-rich and the fake-it-till-you-make-it rich, you can’t help marvelling at her powers of persuasion. Didn’t the “Limo King” of Chicago realise how silly he’d look with his Ali G headpiece and his cuddly tigers and his pretend gold? Surely the blonde oligarchess felt a flutter of shame at her “I’M A LUXURY” sweater? Didn’t the time-share billionaire David Siegel suspect that allowing Greenfield to record his attempt to build his hideous 90,000sq ft replica of Versailles opposite Disney World, Florida, would make him look horrendous?
The answer, more often than not, is no. “I have very close relationships with the subjects and they feel very engaged and proud of the work we have done together,” insists Greenfield, 51, who has spent about three decades stealing the souls of these choice capitalist specimens. “I don’t try to disappear when I take photos. I want to be someone they can have a beer with. I try to spend a lot of time with them, to interview them, to build up some trust that their story will be told accurately.”
Clearly, her subjects feel she does them justice. Limo Bob was one of many who flew to Los Angeles for the luxey launch of Greenfield’s new exhibition and book, Generation Wealth. So too did Kacey Jordan (whom Greenfield snapped shortly after the ex-porn star’s bender with Charlie Sheen), Jackie Goldberg (the “Pink Lady” whose Botox injections she captured in horrible close-ups) and even little Phoebe (the three-year-old she depicted at the VIP opening of Barneys department store in Beverly Hills).
As for the Siegels – whose riches-to-rags tale Greenfield captured in her schadenfreude-tastic 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles – they had already paid her the ultimate compliment. Jackie Siegel spent a year promoting the movie. David Siegel tried to sue her, lost, and hired a theatre in Orlando for the premiere, bringing along all his friends in a party bus and telling them the movie was great but that none of it was true. “Money doesn’t make you happy; it just makes you unhappy in a better part of town,” as he likes to say.
It is an artist’s special privilege to gain access to the world of the rich – and one of her noblest callings is to show the rest of us what that looks like, how money functions, how the system works. It’s hard to think of anyone who does it with as much diligence as Greenfield. Generation Wealth is a mammoth project that has involved six years’ trawling through more than 500,000 photos and months of interviews. It begins with the shots of rich kids in Los Angeles in the early Nineties and ends with images of the money-obese in China, Russia and Dubai. Along the way, it takes in cheap credit and cheap fame, Botox and bling, Kim Kardashian, Jordan “Wolf of Wall Street” Belfort, and the life-sized replica of the White House built by the Chinese billionaire, Huang Qiaoling, as his pied-a-terre in Hangzhou. (His office overlooks a replica of Mount Rushmore.)
“It’s not so much a retrospective as a global morality tale,” she explains. “I realised the stories I was telling during the financial crash and the stories I was telling about rich LA kids in the early Nineties were all connected. It’s about how consumerism has taken over the American Dream. We’ve never had more inequality and we’ve never had so much wealth concentrated in the hands of the very few. So we’ve created a fictitious social mobility based on bling and cheap credit.”
That numbed-out world of the rich really resonated
It’s not that Greenfield’s thesis is unfamiliar, exactly. It’s just that you rarely see it from so many angles all at once, presented with such cumulative force and emotional punch. As her extensive interviews make clear, her subjects are often completely self-aware but caught up in what she calls the “Matrix” of insecurity and acquisition all the same. “A lot of the people in my photographs are making sane and rational choices, given that we live in a world where there is no morality except money,” she says.
I meet Greenfield in the Blade Runner-esque development of Century City in Los Angeles. She’s small, a teensy bit gawky, tastefully dressed in black. She lives with her Irish husband, Frank Evers (he produces her films), and two boys, Noah, 16, and Gabriel, 10, in LA, a place where extremes of wealth and vanity are always in your peripheral vision.
Greenfield grew up in a series of ramshackle communes in Venice, before chic vegans and tech bros gentrified the neighbourhood. Her parents were successful academics: her mother a professor of psychology at UCLA, her father of medicine. However, after they divorced, they opted for unconventional living arrangements. “For my dad, it was more practical – he was a single dad trying to care for two kids, and it made sense to do it in a group,” she says. “My mom was more idealistic. She was influenced by the women’s movement and the Sixties and really believed in ‘from each according to his means to each according to his needs’.”
So Greenfield grew up sharing meals with 20 other kids, facing occasional break-ins and attending an alternative school in Venice. However, after a spell in France, her parents sent her to the elite Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica for the US equivalent of sixth form. Here, she met the children of Hollywood producers and Beverly Hills estate agents – and a host of insecurities. “One friend wasn’t allowed to sleep at my house because her mom thought Venice was too dangerous. My dad went to a PTA meeting and another dad asked him what he did for a living. When he said he was a professor of medicine, the man said, ‘That is too bad,’ and walked away, because he was not making enough money to be interesting.”
She graduated from university in the Reaganite boom year of 1987 and hit on visual anthropology as a career. She cut her teeth documenting remote Mayan tribes in northern Mexico for National Geographic, but, faced with a culture she had no handle on, a language she did not speak and a people who hated to be photographed, she grew demoralised. But there was a copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero in the house she was renting, and his account of alienated teenagers in LA convinced her that the really interesting anthropology was happening closer to home.
I’m interested in how these people affect us; we want what they have
“There was something in that numbed-out world of the rich that really resonated with what I’d seen in high school,” she says. “In the big picture, I grew up privileged and yet the fact that I felt like I didn’t have enough compared with the other kids showed me how strong the pull of the culture was. When I interviewed Bret Easton Ellis, he reiterated the same sentiment – that he and others he knew who had all the necessities of a middle-class lifestyle, felt ‘less than’ in the atmosphere of conspicuous consumption in the Hollywood-influenced private school world of LA.”
It’s striking how 2017 those images from the Nineties look today. The fashions are amazingly on point for a start: a generation is enough for those clean white T-shirts and grungy skater shirts to come around again. A photograph of a teenager playing Gameboy at their graduation, scandalous then, looks just like any teenager on Instagram now. You can see the interplay between gang culture and affluence (some of the rich Beverly Hills kids she depicts went out looting in the LA riots like the gangster rappers they saw on MTV, just as the gangster rappers pretended to be living in Beverly Hills). Then there are teenage girls applying their make-up in a two-way mirror – and Lindsay, in rhinoplasty bandages on her 18th birthday, because her parents have given her a nose job.
And there, tying the whole thing together, is an insouciantly self-conscious Kim Kardashian, aged 12. “When I first took that picture I didn’t think it was anything significant – I knew her as the daughter of OJ Simpson’s lawyer,” says Greenfield. “When I was going through all my old pictures I was like, ‘Wait. That girl looks so familiar.’ We realised it was Kim Kardashian. She really represents how transformative reality TV can be. Now if you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, they say rich and famous. Which is not a job.” Kardashian shared the picture with her 97.5 million Instagram followers with the caption “90’s” (with no credit for Greenfield). She received 1.9 million likes.
Still, it is the Siegels whom Greenfield knows most intimately. Jackie herself is a case study in the warped value system she seeks to expose. She grew up in Binghamton, New York, a small town dominated by IBM. Realising she had a choice between marrying a software engineer or becoming one herself, she chose the latter course and attained a degree in computing. But a couple of days into her new job, she caught a glimpse of the tedium that awaited her – a colleague had programmed a clock counting down until his retirement – so she quit. She became a model, won Mrs Florida 1993 and eventually caught the eye of the billionaire time-share magnate David Siegel, 30 years her senior. They have seven children.
The Queen of Versailles followed the Siegels as they went deeper and deeper into debt trying to create their dream home, with a ballroom filled with Louis XIV furniture, bowling alley, ten kitchens, 30 bathrooms, sushi bar, spa, baseball field and panoramic view of the fireworks over Disney World. This is before the credit crisis hit, giving what would have been an ordinary tale of bad taste an emblematic quality. “They were the last people I expected to be hit by the vicissitudes of the market,” says Greenfield. “It showed me that everyone was experiencing the same phenomenon. There were the same mistakes, the same human nature that had taken us there.” She recalls the conversation between Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the last gilded age. Fitzgerald: “The rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.”
“They’re just a small group. I wouldn’t spend 25 years on the 1 per cent. I’m interested in how they affect the larger group, how people want what they have.”
She’s still friends with Jackie Siegel – they spent about a year on the road promoting the film. David Siegel was less fond, although he did have to pay $750,000 in legal fees after his unsuccessful lawsuit.
The crash really wasn’t bad for everybody. In truth, the rich use them to get richer
“He is a big Trump supporter and seems to hold similar views about ‘fake news’. There are a lot of similarities between David Siegel and Donald Trump,” says Greenfield. “Jackie actually dated Trump once. And David was in competition with Trump. It was the $600 million tower that he tried to build in Las Vegas that came close to ruining him. He had this huge sign that said ‘Westgate’, which was the brightest sign in Vegas. Trump said to him, ‘Your tower looks great, David, but can you turn your sign down? It’s too bright.’”
She might have added the Versailles component, too. In The Art of the Deal, Trump writes of his real estate empire: “What I’m doing is about as close as you’re going to get, in the 20th century, to the quality of Versailles.”
While Greenfield has never photographed her current president, his spectre is not far away. “There are a lot of commonalities with him and this work. The love of gold. The aesthetics of luxury – he’s apparently put gold drapes up in the White House. The fact that he owns beauty pageants. He’s a real-estate mogul, which is really at the heart of boom and bust. And he’s a reality TV star, faking it until he made it. And he’s someone who is entirely self-focused. So he represents all of these values. The work is not about him; it is about the culture that allowed him to ascend.”
So is Trump the final scene of this morality tale – or the big baddy at the end? A generation is about 25 years. Does she see better values coming through with the new generation? The financiers she has photographed aren’t persuasive.
“The crash really wasn’t bad for everybody. Crashes are marketed that way, but, in truth, the rich use them to get richer as they buy the devalued assets of the newly poor.”
More recently, she has turned her focus on the super-rich of Russia and China. Her subjects include Moscow’s most successful divorce lawyer in an office filled with kitsch Lenin rugs (now worth a fortune). “When an oligarch’s marriage breaks down, he and his wife will rush to call this guy first.” There’s also a Chinese billionaire who’s trying to build Versailles. “One of the things I saw in China and Russia is that they’ve gone beyond wanting Prada and Versace. That’s seen as very Nineties. Now they want what money can’t apparently buy, but actually can.”
So, no, she can’t summon much Californian optimism. “If these values take hold in China, there’s just not enough resources. If everybody wants to be a baller, it is the end of western civilisation and of the planet, eventually.”
Well, it’s been entertaining, hasn’t it?
The lives of the rich
Xue Qiwen, Chinese, CEO
I think for someone in their forties, like me, everything should be more modest, not too flashy. Take the bar in my house, which I purchased ten years ago. (I have eight more houses for commercial purposes.) The bar is very interesting and unique. It has the Versace logo on it. People know right away that it’s Versace when they see it. Most of my furniture is Versace.
The Communist Party wanted to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. In recent years, the market has become more open. Now the attitude of accumulating wealth is more commonly accepted.
I am a member of a large yacht club in Shanghai. It costs about $28,000 to become a member. I started playing golf merely for work 16 years ago. I have memberships to three different golf clubs. It costs about $100,000 for a membership card, and you still need to pay a monthly fee.
I think Chinese people should improve. For example, I think it’s necessary to pronounce foreign names correctly. I try to learn although sometimes I simply forget. I can pronounce “Louis Vuitton”, but it’s easier when you just say “LV”.
Ilona, Russian, former model
I didn’t want to live in a big house. It’s too much space to take care of. You have to have a lot of housekeepers. You feel like you are walking into a hotel, because there are so many people walking around. Nevertheless we live in a big house because my husband likes them. Today in Moscow, when you make money, you must have a big house, a young and beautiful wife with huge diamonds and a crocodile Birkin bag, big expensive cars – not one, but a few – private jets, a yacht.
Jackie Siegel (opening image), American, wife of “time-share king” David Siegel
In the heyday of my shopping, I probably spent more than $1 million a year. I have a $17,000 pair of Gucci crocodile boots; I have ostrich-feather Gucci pants that cost probably $10,000. I have a ton of purses. I think purses are a good investment. If you ever get into a bind you can always sell them on eBay.
We use the private jet as much as we can. It’s too hard to travel commercial with all these children and all our stuff and all our staff. I think the last time we flew commercial with the kids was a few years ago. One of the kids said, “Mommy, what are all these strangers doing on our plane?”
I’ve had a taste of being dirt poor and a taste of being filthy rich, and, yeah, I like being rich. I mean, who wouldn’t like getting everything you want?
Lauren Greenfield: Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield is published by Phaidon on May 15 (£59.95). Lauren Greenfield will be in conversation with Anne McElvoy at the Design Museum on May 18 (uk.phaidon.com/events/)
Hair and make-up Helen Robertson using Votre Vu and Leonor Greyl, Paris