THE STORYA documentary that investigates the pathologies that have created the richest society the world has ever seen.
THE CAST – Limo Bob, Florian Homm & Tiffany Masters
THE TEAM – Lauren Greenfield (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
By Will Mavity
“Generation Wealth” is one of the year’s most upsetting documentaries – in part because the American excess on display is so profoundly disturbing, and partially because it could have been so good, but instead settles for being merely decent because ironically, it falls prey to excess itself. By attempting to tackle far too many stories, the result is only intermittently engaging and offers little new to say on the topic.
Lauren Greenfield’s previous documentary, “Queen of Versailles” is so effective because it picks a story and stays with it. The perverse excess on display from one single family determined to literally recreate Versailles speaks volumes about the state of American consumerism and competition. She didn’t need to focus on 7 families squandering money, for example.
Now, with her first feature doc “Generation Wealth,” Greenfield transitions from the micro to the macro. She wants to focus on every aspect of American excess and obsession. As such, she decides to follow a range of subjects, including an ex-con hedge fund manager, a ruthless venture capitalist who tries her hand at motherhood, a Guinness World Record-setting porn star, a single mother who goes bankrupt on plastic surgery. These four storylines are compelling.
Florian Homm (The hedge fund manager) is riveting. He enters the film screaming both Bond villain and Bruce Wayne. He has an irresistible swagger, an expensive cigar, and a bottle of Champaign. He gleefully regales the audience with tales of his highs and lows. We learn about him procuring prostitutes for his son and fleeing the FBI. And we also get to see him brought to his knees, sobbing as the chickens come home to roost. The same goes for Suzanne, the venture capitalist, whose icy stare and cutthroat business attitude are mesmerizing. Especially as Greenfield’s interview allows us to see Suzanne’s vulnerable side.
The problem is, each of the above-mentioned subjects could warrant their own film. Instead, Greenfield shoves them in a film together. And then she also decides to focus on about 15-20 other subjects. We have a child beauty pageant contestant. Some of the Nouveau riche in China and Russia. Strippers and managers at an Atlanta strip club. A slew of people Greenfield went to high school with. People from an eating disorder clinic. A banker-turned-fisherman in Iceland The family from “Queen of Versailles.” Greenfield’s own parents. And finally, Greenfield herself. All of which goes to say, there’s a lot going on.
Greenfield’s analysis of her own obsession betrays the fact that she is compulsively filming all the time. At one point, her son waves a sign in front of the camera reading “You Have A Problem.” And that does seem to be the issue here. Greenfield wanted to capture so much. She wants to capture all of the world’s excesses. And it seems, her own obsessions, her own excesses will not let her let any of her stories go. There’s just too much. As such, instead of taking a journey alongside a few compelling subjects, the viewer is bombarded by more than a dozen subplots. And none of them is allowed to be as well-fleshed out as it deserves. The film feels like one of those mid-season episodes of a television show that checks in on every single storyline without really advancing the plot.
More importantly, when a film focuses on telling a single story, it can be forgiven for not telling a new or unique message, if the characters and narrative are compelling. But here, when Greenfield tries to tackle the entire world, we expect to observe some deep analysis or learn something new. Instead, she points out that yes, people are shallow. People live in excess. People always want more, and sometimes, once people lose everything, they are happier. This is nothing we don’t already know.
A professor pops in here and there to spout alarming lines like “a society accrues its greatest wealth in the moments before its collapse.” Which may be true, but the film doesn’t really run anywhere with the idea, other than reminding us that society is screwed up, and has been for years. It’s a shallow analysis at the beast.
This isn’t to say that the film is never compelling. Greenfield has a knack for finding interesting subjects, and for getting them to say incredibly revealing things on camera. The material is there. The final product simply fails to hang that material in an orderly fashion. Which makes me wonder, is Greenfield’s team of editors to blame? Four editors tried to stitch together a coherent narrative when there was clearly enough material for a TV series.
In short, “Generation Wealth” feels like a missed opportunity. Greenfield has the material, but this project should have either narrowed its focus to a few of its subjects, or kept the wide focus, and opted to be a miniseries. Cramming a dozen topics into less than two hours does nothing but alienate the audience from any narrative to really connect to, while also forcing shallow analysis. “Generation Wealth” may disgust you on occasion with the opulence it captures, but more than anything, it will leave you disappointed, knowing the possibility of what could have been.
THE GOOD – Greenfield picks some fascinating subjects who are riveting to watch.
THE BAD – The film tries to tackle way too many themes and subjects, and ends up offering neither a deep analysis or a coherent narrative.
THE OSCARS – None
THE FINAL SCORE – 6/10