In Generation Wealth, Money Is The New Morality

Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Greenfield/Institute.
In the award-winning "Like A Girl" ad campaign sponsored by Always, photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield asked young girls and boys to do a certain task (run, fight, throw) like a girl. She also asked older people — teenagers and young adults — to do the same thing.
The results were drastically different: The older participants seemed to think that doing anything "like a girl" was worth making fun of. And as a little boy explained, he wasn't insulting his sister — he was just insulting girls. The young girls, however, who hadn't yet reached puberty, thought running like a girl meant going "fast as you can," or hitting home runs.
The ad touched on the idea of how society can shape culture's view of gender. Now, in her new book, Generation Wealth, Greenfield is examining global society's understanding of money and wealth.
Generation Wealth is a huge book. It's also gold and very heavy, with a photo of a little girl sitting on a fake pony, staring directly at a camera. A woman watches her, wearing a sweater that says I'm A Luxury on the front. You can almost hear Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory singing "I Want It Now." Money has always mattered to people, but Greenfield's book seems to show that it has become one of the world's reigning virtues.
"The work is about how image has trumped substance over the last 25 years," Greenfield says. "You pick up something like this that's beautiful and gold silk, but when you go through the pages and read through, you understand pretty quickly that this is not an aspirational experience, but actually a kind of devastating one about where our aspirations have gotten us."
Years ago, Greenfield worked at National Geographic doing international photo assignments. Her examination of youth culture began in the early-1990s in Los Angeles, where she is from, and she began to look at kids in the private school she went to. Some of that was reflected in a previous work, "Fast Forward," but after the financial crash in 2008, she decided to widen her frame. In 2012, she released The Queen of Versailles, a documentary that followed Jackie Siegel and David Siegel, the owners of Westgate Resorts, as they rushed to build the biggest single-family house in the United States in the face of the economic decline. Her latest collection for Generation Wealth is currently on exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography in L.A., and will be showing at the International Center of Photography in New York this September.
"I realized that all of the stories I had been doing about culture, and the values of globalism and consumerism had been exported to other countries, and had led us to that crisis in some way," Greenfield says. "I wanted to rethink the things I had shot before, and I went back through all the outtakes. I found things like Kim Kardashian at 12 years old at a party. She wasn't in the original work because she wasn't important, and when I found the picture, I didn't recognize her at first. I looked at my notes and read: 'the daughter of the O.J. Simpson lawyer Robert Kardashian.' She became such a touchstone for the way our culture has changed, so I put that in, and other things I found."
Greenfield says she wants to create a "new narrative" about wealth and how that has changed the world over the last few decades. Ahead, she talks to Refinery29 about the highs and lows of money-obsessed culture.