One of the best documentaries to emerge from the economic meltdown was Lauren Greenfield's Queen of Versailles, about a Florida couple and their Ozymandian quest to build the world's largest residence.
The failure of the doomed and hubristic enterprise told a story that aligned with an era of excess, and the structure's abandoned ruin stood by movie's end as an apt monument to an age of greed and overreach.
Now Greenfield is back with a sequel of sorts, Generation Wealth, which picks up on themes of Versailles. It also loops in Greenfield's other work as a documentary filmmaker (Thin), and material from her career as a photographer, in which she's examined pornography, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and the lives of the children of celebrities.
Greenfield makes an ambitious attempt to tie all of these things together as symptoms of capitalism gone wrong in Generation Wealth, although her thesis is weakly argued, and thinly sourced – the movie often turns out to be a curiously insular polling of family, friends, and high school and college classmates.
Together they advance Greenfield's theory that unfettered capitalism has turned everything into a commodity, including human beings. Thus, a career in pornography is a rational means of extracting value from a system that prices bodies and detaches morality from behavior. A woman's eating disorder is a form of resistance to this body-as-commodity paradigm. Another woman goes into debt to finance repeated plastic surgery, drawing a lesson, the film implies, from the for-profit exhibitionism of the Kardashians.
These claims become increasingly dubious and even dangerous (ending capitalism will not end bulimia), and even Greenfield seems to think so. Her movies is peppered with disclaimers like "seems like," "feels like," and the supremely slippery "feels like a symbol."
Some of the testimony is laughably unreliable. We get a lesson in the dangers of abandoning the gold standard (the root of our easy-money ethos, we're told) from an eccentric fellow named Florian Homm, who looks like Vincent Price playing a villain in a Raymond Chandler story but is an actual person. Also an actual fugitive – wanted by the U.S. government for his part in an alleged financial swindle. Greenfield cites his shady history, but also takes much of his hucksterism at face value.
Later portions of the film find Greenfield examining her own career and work habits, wondering if her own competitive drive and ambition are also symptoms of a corrosive system.
Yet her family seems none the worse for wear; she's blessed with loving and accomplished children (one of whom compliments his mom for making sure her documentary includes the stories of "poor people") and a supportive husband who set his own career aside to allow Greenfield the freedom to develop her talent and pursue a career than could fairly be described as enterprising. And lucrative.
Generation Wealth ends with Greenfield showing us her latest book rolling off the printing press, and folks admiring a new gallery exhibition of her photographs. The capitalists call that synergy.