By Lauren Greenfield
Illustrated. 504 pp. Phaidon. $75.
The documentary filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield’s ambitious new book, “Generation Wealth,” showcases her chronicling of the lifestyles of the rich and famous over the last 20 years. One photo in particular caught my eye, because I happened to be there when it was taken. I’d been interviewing homeless kids in Tucson for a Vanity Fair article in 2003 when Greenfield was sent to take the pictures for it. (The article was never published.) Greenfield’s caption reads: “Jedi has consciously rejected his family’s affluent, mainstream existence in favor of a transient life.” This wasn’t how I remembered the young man, so I checked my transcripts and confirmed that he actually grew up poor and left home, as so many homeless kids do, because of poverty and family issues.
I mention this discrepancy not to flag an error, but because I think it’s important to note, when considering a visual collection Greenfield calls “a sociological document,” that photographers are always looking through a certain lens. It’s not that one needs to argue with her thesis (stated in both her lengthy introduction and a foreword by the sociologist Juliet Schor) that income inequality has gotten out of hand, that our obsession with wealth and fame diminishes and dehumanizes us in far-reaching ways. Rather, one ought to ask, whom does Greenfield offer up as examples? And how does she choose to depict them?
Many of the subjects featured in this collection are female. The conspicuous consumption on display occurs largely among wealthy women and teenage girls (a young Kim Kardashian makes an appearance), models and strippers, 4- and 5-year-old beauty pageant contestants and prom queens. In her foreword, Schor summarizes this theme as the “objectification of women.” But looking at the images one wonders if they themselves do not also participate in this objectification. These are not kind photographs; some seem to mock their subjects, portraying them as frivolous and shallow, hard and crass. The tone is in keeping with how the wider media has often dealt with our collective anxiety over the fascination with money and fame: by projecting…