BY ANY MEASURE, Lauren Greenfield enjoyed a privileged background. Her parents taught at UCLA. She grew up in Venice and attended a private high school in Santa Monica. And yet she felt poor when her friends received BMWs, Porsches, and Volvos for their sweet sixteens and she didn’t. “Even though I had everything I needed, I still felt like I didn’t have enough,” Greenfield says. “I still wanted more and felt less-than compared to the wealthy consumption I was seeing at school.”
That desire for more, for the trappings of affluence, became an overarching theme of her career as a photographer. Greenfield has spent the past 25 years documenting people of all ages and backgrounds striving to convey great wealth. She recently compiled 650 images in *Generation Wealth, *an insightful study of materialism and vanity. “There are billionaires and white-collar criminals, but a lot of the people in the work are not rich, and that’s kind of the point. It’s about the influence of affluence, and the aspiration to be wealthy. So even though some of them might look rich, they might be fighting like hell to be there.”
The book, like the ongoing project, starts in 1992 when Greenfield returned to her high school to photograph students who, yielding to the influence of media and peer pressure, were prone to excessive displays of wealth and privilege, like cosmetic surgery and riding to concerts in limos. In the years since, she’s met child beauty contestants, mingled with music producers, and visited strip clubs to see how the quest for status and wealth can warp someone’s perception of beauty and sex. She’s photographed celebrities like Kim Kardashian and white-collar criminals like Jordan Belfort, whose penny-stock scam defrauded investors of $200 million and inspired the Oscar-nominated film The Wolf of Wall Street.
Despite the thread running through her work, the idea of a book didn’t occur to Greenfield until 2012, when she was wrapping up her documentary series *Queen of Versailles. *The series featured David and Jackie Siegel, a Florida couple building what was at the time the biggest house in America. They nearly lost the 75,000-square-foot mansion when the market crashed in 2008, something Greenfield later saw as a morality tale about voracious consumerism. “We’d gone from this Protestant ethic of hard work and modesty and discretion and real social mobility to a culture that values bling and celebrity and narcissism at a time of little social mobility,” Greenfield says. “Bling was the new American dream.”
Greenfield and curator Trudy Wilner Stack spent four years sifting through the photographer’s archive of half a million photos and 10,000 slides. She also shot additional images during eight trips to countries like Russia and China, where westward-looking elites think nothing of decorating their homes in Versace, taking up golf and polo, and paying tens of thousands of dollars to learn how to properly pronounce the names of designer brands. “They were experiencing wealth 2.0,” Greenfield says.
The book presents a vision of wealth so opulent it’s nauseating, so gaudy it’s grotesque. Larger-than-life characters populate the pages, like “Limo Bob,” an exotic limo impresario in Chicago who wears 33 pounds of gold jewelry. A middle-class teenage boy shows off a Cartier teacup he saved and saved for. A young Walmart employee rides a glass Cinderella coach at Walt Disney World like a princess on her wedding day, pretending, if only for a day, she’s rich.
Generation Wealth will be published by Phaidon May 15.