Generation Wealth — Film Review

Generation Wealth

Directed by Lauren Greenfield



This film was a good idea that got bogged down with the director’s self indulgence and personal psychopathology.  It is never a good idea to try to psychoanalyze yourself in public.  Trying to commoditize yourself and make money on your own mental illness is even worse.  If she had just stuck to the project she started out with, namely documenting the excesses of wealth and indulgence, greed, narcissism, the emotional, psychological, and moral bankruptcy that pervades contemporary American society, it would have made an excellent film.  But unfortunately, she injected too much of herself into the mix and the film became preoccupied with the idiosyncrasies of her personal life.  It considerably narrowed the scope of the film from a broad look at trends within American society, to looking at Greenfield herself and her own family.  Large swaths of this film devolve into home movies, albeit with a psychotherapeutic bent.

The other people that Greenfield documented and interviewed were far more interesting than she is.  She presents a parade of vacuous, pathetic people who have gained the world and lost their souls.  But they are quite memorable and make a strong impression.  It recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 novel, Less Than Zero, about the ennui and drug abuse among wealthy southern California teenagers.  The novel is referred to in the film and Ellis makes a brief appearance and offers some comments as well.  This film suggests that Less Than Zero has grown from a California enclave to pervade much of American middle class society.  It could have been a compelling case, but I think Greenfield’s personal preoccupations get in the way of this larger vision.

The film does illustrate what Karl Marx pointed out about capitalism back in the 1860s.  The tendency of capitalism is to commoditize everything, and reduce all values to one value, namely the amassing of profit and wealth.  It was put best in the film by Florian Homm, a German investor who appears throughout, who is currently under indictment in the United States for securities fraud:  “Anyone who thinks money can buy everything has never had money.  Money can’t buy my daughter’s smile, or the love of my wife.”  He relates a dinner he had one night with his wife in an elegant restaurant overlooking a harbor.  He pointed out numerous yachts in the harbor and offered to buy any one of them for her, inviting her to choose her favorite.  She said to him, “You know what I want more than anything else?  Turn off your cell phone.”

American people over the last fifty years, out of an anxious quest for status and security in the face of the steady erosion of the economic foundations of their lives, and the increasing dominance of the economy and the institutions of political governance by corporations, have wholeheartedly embraced the one value of capitalism and sold their lives and enslaved themselves in a desperate attempt at self preservation by aligning with the same corporate vipers who are devouring them.  But corporations do not value communities, they don’t value families, they don’t value children, personal happiness, self knowledge, inner peace, sexual fulfillment, personal security, good health, long life, a clean environment, natural resources, patriotism, personal identity, individuality, history, art, friendships, education (except as it relates to one’s role as a worker), the well being of future generations.  Corporations value none of these things.  These things only detract from ones role as a worker in the corporation and must therefore be subordinated or suppressed.  Human bonding is suspect because it might contaminate one’s decision making or detract from ones dedication to furthering the interest of the corporation and maximizing profit.  Corporations don’t even value the things they make.  The fashion industry for example destroys millions of dollars worth of perfectly good clothes, shoes, accessories, and perfume every year in order to maintain prices at artificially high levels.  Forget supply and demand.  It’s not about making stuff, it’s about making money.

The film does not emphasize the penetration of corporate values into the political system and the laws governing economic relations in society, but it does show the human consequences of this trend in people who organize their lives around a singleminded devotion to amassing wealth.  They are like bombed out buildings, ruins, emotional wasteland.  They have material wealth, but psychologically and emotionally, they are impoverished.  Even worse than impoverished.  Many of them are mentally ill, and some are, or have been, suicidal.  If Greenfield’s perception is correct, and the people she depicts are representative, then American society is disintegrating from within.

Personally, I have managed to insulate myself from this cultural and emotional devastation that Greenfield has so painstakingly documented.  I don’t own a television.  I pay scant attention to popular culture.  I am not familiar with the most popular TV shows, movies, actors, actresses, and singers (because I find it all so shallow and repulsive).  One boy whom Greenfield interviews (I believe one of her own sons) tells us, “I know the Kardashians better than I know my own neighbors”  [because of television].  For myself, I don’t know who the Kardashians are.  I don’t think I would be able to identify them in a photograph.  A lot of what Greenfield presented was news to me.  The economic and social decline of American society isn’t news to me.  I have been watching that with my own eyes for fifty years.  But this pervasive emotional and psychological disintegration of ordinary middle class people did take me aback.  Things are much worse and more far reaching than I had realized.

The lesson to be taken away from this film is that there is something wrong with a society that rewards people such as these portrayed in the film and promotes them to positions of prominence and influence.  But it is an inevitable consequence of an unfettered capitalist economy.  These are the people who are cultivated, rewarded, and promoted under such a system.  This was the point the film did not make to my satisfaction: how the economic system is shaping a hollowed out individual who has nothing within and only a career and consumption without.  Human bonds become very tenuous and based on shallow external features related to wealth and consumption.  There is a general devaluation of the inward heart and the formation of deep emotional bonds between people.  From an early age, in education and especially within families, people are being taught and conditioned to subordinate every interest and every aspect of their lives to one, namely, rising to the pinnacle of achievement for the end of making money.  But it comes at a great cost of destroying the person’s psychological well being, his relations with other people, and his sense of belonging to a community.

Since the 1960s the United States has been removing the restraints on business and encouraging the amassing of large pools of capital in private hands, and allowing individuals who are so inclined to devote themselves wholeheartedly to those ends.  Ronald Reagan justified this as “freedom.”  This has a very high cost in terms of human relatedness and social stability.  This film shows the psychological, cultural, and social outcome of such policies and it implies that American society is in a deep cultural crisis.  It is a good job and an important aspect of American life that does not get the airplay that the superficiality and emphasis on consumption and achievement do, but it is marred by Greenfield’s preoccupation with her own personal problems (which are also symptomatic of this same malaise), and she doesn’t do a good job of connecting the dots with the larger picture of developments in the economy and the political system that are fueling this psychological deterioration of the American spirit.