Can Photography Be A Calling? Lauren Greenfield Spends 25 Years Documenting Wealth

Can photography be more than just work? Can it be a calling? How do you know? And what if that calling coincides with a transformational period in world history and you are called upon to document every move? Lauren Greenfield’s new exhibition and book, “Generation Wealth” is a time capsule a quarter century in the making.

To say that photojournalist Lauren Greenfield has been documenting wealth for twenty five years is a bit misleading. That statement suggest it was her intention starting out. A thesis statement come to fruition. In actuality, she is one-half photographer, one-half social scientist, and her particular skill-set for ingratiating herself into global communities of the powerful (and those who only wish to be powerful) has allowed her to not so much create a series of images of wealth as to document a world in which the allure of power and prestige has supplanted the value of hard work. A world where cash has replaced humanity. Where the only currency that matters is the appearance of wealth, regardless of whether such image is reinforced by reality.

I first became familiar with Greenfield via her book “Fast Forward: Growing Up In The Shadow of Hollywood.” After graduating Harvard, and beginning her career with National Geographic documenting the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, she returned to her roots, so to speak. Having attended an upscale Los Angeles high school, she trained her lens on the children of the upper class. What does it look like to come of age in the afterglow of the City of Stars?

Her projects “Girl Culture” and the HBO documentary “Thin” both explored issues of female identity. As mentioned during the documentary that accompanies the new exhibition of her work at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, girls are taught at a very early age that their bodies have currency. They are taught to determine their value by the reflection in the mirror. Yet, knowing beauty is more than skin deep, Greenfield dives deeper into the larger meanings behind such valuations. What effect does such an outlook have on our young girls? How does that mental programing follow them throughout adulthood? What happens when the reflection in the mirror is not valued in the eyes of the beholder?

Many people became familiar with Lauren Greenfield’s work through her 2012 documentary “Queen of Versailles,” about the wife of a nouveau-riche Florida billionaire and their dream of building an American mansion to match the grandeur suggested in the film’s title. The film is at once perverse and illuminating. Both familiar and utterly unpredictable. We no doubt go into the film thinking we already know the story. We take one look at the title character and assume we already know her. We already know how to feel about her. We already know her situation. But, like any great documentarian, over the course of the films running time, Greenfield has told us a different story. A more honest one. She’s filled in the broad strokes of our sketch and infused our presumed caricature with shades of grey. She allows us to see beyond the labels into the treads of the garment.

That analogy was not accidental. The new exhibition goes well beyond that documentary and delves far deeper into the meaning and motivations behind our cultural obsession with wealth and all the things we choose to buy with it. More importantly, it questions whether or not the multitude of items we purchase have any value at all.

From the Russian oligarchs trying to one-up each other with the biggest mansion and the youngest and prettiest brides, to the “trophy wife” whose golden palace has begun to more accurately resemble a prison. The would-be hip hop moguls, stars in their own minds only, spending every dime and a few more for the labels that portray a lifestyle they want so badly to aspire to. The psychiatrist who specialized in treating Wall Street bankers and their wives who (literally) spend half of their sessions in emotional distress due to the fact that one of their “rivals” has possession of a more expensive designer hand bag.

To say that money is the root of all evil is quaint but simplistic. To ridicule the behavior of the subjects from the outside looking in, is both a natural response and short sighted. What Greenfield’s new exhibition exposes is that cause and effect is a two-way street. As the world economy becomes more intertwined than ever, so do our values. As America exports its goods around the globe, it also exports its culture. Old European class structures present in the world at the time the real Versailles was built have found their way to the present day shores of places like China and Russia as new hierarchic societies emerge along with the new world order.

Lauren Greenfield isn’t responsible for shaping their tectonic shifts in global finance and human beings tactile and emotional interaction with wealth. But her work over the last 25 years serves as an enduring document of the way money can change the world. And how the world can be changed by money.

Greenfield’s new book Generation Wealth goes in available for pre-sale and ships May 15th.

The Generation Wealth exhibition will be on display at the Annenberg Space for Photography through August 13th, 2017.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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1 Comment

The biblical quote is actually, 'Money is a root of all kinds of evil', not 'the root of all evil'.