'Generation Wealth' Director Lauren Greenfield on Why Our Luxury-Obsessed Society May Be Doomed

A rich German hedge fund manager buys his son a prostitute for his 16th birthday. A lucrative sex worker gets $30,000 to attend a sex party at Charlie Sheen's house. A single mother goes deep into debt to fund her dangerous plastic surgery addiction.

These are some of the stories of toxic greed and luxury-gone-overboard that populate Lauren Greenfield's disturbing new documentary, Generation Wealth. Greenfield, a veteran photographer who has published a book with the same title, gains uncomfortable access to the inner lives of her status-obsessed subjects as she seeks to understand how the love of money displaced the value of love. That thesis seemed validated when, near the end of her filmmaking process, the country elected to the presidency a self-proclaimed billionaire who lives in a lavish marble-and-gold tower.

"Trump is a symptom of generation wealth rather than the disease itself," Greenfield says. Onscreen, she also turns the camera on herself, exposing her own prep-school upbringing and tracking down some of the rich-kid teens she photographed at the start of her career, more than 20 years ago. Her previous documentary, The Queen of Versailles, chronicled a billionaire couple's perverse attempt to construct one of the largest single-family homes in the United States. Like that film, Generation Wealth contains no simple answers but plenty of eye-popping glimpses of opulence and excess gone berserk.

In an interview, Greenfield spoke with Newsweek about rampant materialism and why she believes our status-obsessed society is "heading towards the brink" of disaster.

How has the reaction to Generation Wealth been so far?
People laugh in a lot of places—some places you wouldn't really expect. Also, some were crying. It's weird; a lot of people have said to me that it changed their life or was transformative. It seems people are reacting very viscerally and personally rather than as a distant story about other people.

Do you think it change pesople's lives because viewers are becoming more aware of our fetishization of wealth?
A lot of people said it made them rethink their values. Several men told me, "I want to go home and hug my kids." I think people get that we're all complicit in the kinds of desires and even addictions that come up in the movie.

Your last film was The Queen of Versailles. What is it about the subject of wealth that has captivated you for so long?
It wasn't really about wealth. It's been about how wealth affects us, the influence of affluence. How the images and exposure to wealth and luxury—which has increased so much in the last 25 years—make us desire these things. My own experience have kind of informed the things I wanted to look at. It came out of my own high school experience, when I went to a fancy private school and was introduced to this world where kids had BMWs at 16 and super-fancy parties and designer clothes. My parents were academics, and not only could they not afford those things, they didn't believe in giving them to me. My experience in high school is what people experience watching TV and social media, starting with Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous.

Generation Wealth
'Generation Wealth' is the latest film from documentarian Lauren Greenfield, who has an established interest in extreme wealth. Amazon Studios

The film explores your upbringing, and the photographs you took in the 1990s. Do you believe society's relationship with wealth has gotten worse since then?
I definitely do. I see it as starting in the Reagan '80s: this shift in ethos where money was considered good, [where] being rich meant you were a good and accomplished person. That culminates with Trump, in a way. Everything has amplified exponentially, and the media is a big driver of that.

What I was looking at in the '90s was the beginning of MTV and hip-hop as a case study for how media drove materialistic values. [Then came] reality TV and social media, and the images of luxury just started to increase and increase. The research shows that as these images increased, more people think those things are normal, and that's combined with a breakdown of traditional values, like the countervailing values we might've gotten in prior generations from religion or family or Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. We become more awash in the influence of what brands want to sell us.

One of the most powerful quotes in the film is from a journalist, who says: "It's like the fall of Rome. Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment they face death." Do you think our society is facing death?
It does feel like we are heading towards the brink. I started to feel that after the financial crash, because it seemed like the financial crash was this correction—this moment of reckoning—where a lot of people I had been following learned lessons. Yet after the crash, it seemed like we went right back into it with even more fervor. There's also the post-moral piece, the Kim Kardashian effect, where anything is worth trading for fame and fortune and it's fine to start with a sex tape as long as that brings the kind of money and lifestyle people are looking for.

Did you ever anticipate we would have a billionaire president at this moment in time?
I never could have predicted the rise of Donald Trump. Yet in a lot of ways he is the apotheosis of this generation wealth, and an expression of all the values that are in the work, from ascribing goodness to wealth to the value of fame, of reality TV, or using beautiful women as an expression of success. And, in a way, a sort of post-moral society, like the ends justify the means.

I think you feel him through the movie. I didn't make him a major part, because I felt like my contribution was to show the culture that made him possible. There's a line in the film where Trump says at a campaign rally: "This isn't about me, this is about you." And that's what I wanted to leave with the audience—that in a way, Trump is a symptom of generation wealth rather than the disease itself.

His election seems to have proven that our country does value wealth more than any other quality.
Wealth and fame. He seems like the ultimate culmination. Sometimes the things I'd been looking at seemed extreme, and the elites could say: ""That's not us—we don't want to look at reality TV culture or beauty pagents or gold decor." But when he was elected, it was like: We can't shy away. We have to face this part of our culture that does affect us all on a daily basis.

The people featured in the film confess pretty dark and disturbing aspects of their lives. How did you earn their trust?
It's hard to explain exactly how it happens. It's like trying to explain to your kid how to make friends. It seems impossible to forge these relationships and have that trust, and then you do it and feel like you've always had it. I try not to be judgmental. I'm really trying to show the world from the subject's point of view, even if it's someone you might not normally meet, like a billionaire hedge fund banker or a porn star.

Generation Wealth
Lauren Greenfield speaks at Annenberg Space For Photography on April 6, 2017. Greenfield's new film, 'Generation Wealth,' is out now. Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Annenberg Foundation

You also spend a lot of time with this one woman's experience using an expensive surrogate to have a baby.
I first met her for a story I was doing for Marie Claire about who spends the most on body maintenance, and Suzanne spent the most. She would get botox and microdermabrasion from a dermatologist on a regular basis. She was a high-powered career woman in banking. There aren't that many of them, as women. She had waited to have kids, which really spoke to me, because I had so many friends who were in that situation where a woman says: "Oh, I forgot to have children!"

It's also interesting that she was able to spend so much money to pay for someone else to carry her child.
What you see in the movie is [that] our bodies are also part of the capitalist cycle. Her surrogate was doing it to get paid, and in her case, she was doing it to get a bigger house. I was interested in how everybody was part of wanting more. There is a transactional quality when you're renting somebody else's womb, and on the other hand, what resulted broke through the transaction and was this life-changing, transformative experience. I think Suzanne realized what mattered, and it wasn't money or her job. It was her daughter and being a mother.

What's the most disturbing story you came across while working on this film?
The bukkake scene [involving a lucrative sex worker who is interviewed in the film] is just so unbelievably degrading and humiliating. I included it because I feel it's so important to show the utter humiliation that a woman like Daphne in the sex work business undergoes. And the consumption of pornography is so widespread. I even asked my son when he was first exposed to pornography, and he said sixth grade. I felt it had to be included so that it's not sensationalized or seen through a prism of neo-feminist empowerment, where women think they're getting the benefit of leveraging their bodies or their sexuality. The cost for her is devastating.