Lauren Greenfield, and 'Generation Wealth'
In 1997, Lauren Greenfield published Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. The book of photographs and interviews created shockwaves. Someone had dared to show the realities of growing up fast in a gritty culture; a culture that the rest of the world thought was cool. Her body of brave work is now more than that. It is a history of our strengths and weaknesses, and a warning to us all. Candide McDonald reports.
The project, Fast Forward, was also the beginning of an obsession, an addiction, Greenfield admits, to exploring addiction – “addiction to consumerism, addiction to more, addiction to fame, to all of these things that we’re striving for,” Greenfield states. “I guess I’m trying to deconstruct culture so that we can see the matrix that we’re living in.” The matrix that we’re living in can be very ugly. Greenfield’s second book and first film, Girl Culture, documented how girls’ identities become embroiled in their bodies and how they learn at a young age that their bodies are their currency, that their bodies are where their power comes from. Her next book, Thin, explored one of the most insidious results of that eating disorders. While Greenfield’s 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles, chronicled the lives of the members of a billionaire family, who tried to build the biggest house in America, a 90,000 square foot replica of the Palace of Versailles in France, and what happened to them in the financial crisis. The Queen of Versailles became a box office triumph. It was an opening-night film at Sundance 2012 and won the Best Director Award. It won the Brisbane International Film Festival Prize, and nominations for Best Documentary by the Directors Guild, International Documentary Association, Critics Choice, and the London Critics Circle Film Awards. It was also the catalyst for a bigger project.
Through The Queen of Versailles and Greenfield’s other explorations of youth culture, gender, and consumerism, the photographer and filmmaker amassed half a million pictures and thousands of interviews. In 2012, Greenfield began to sort and curate them with the help of international curator, Trudy Wilner Stack. She updated and redid interviews, and six years later the film, book, and exhibition, Generation Wealth, were launched. “I started to think about it, and it was conceptually born, around the time of the financial crash when I was making The Queen of Versailles,” Greenfield recounts. “I was seeing the financial crisis affect people from all walks of life, from middle class in California to billionaires in Florida to ex-pats in Dubai to Europeans in Iceland and Ireland. Seeing very similar consequences to very similar behaviour around greed and loose money, and photographically, I was seeing very similar tropes and typologies. It got me thinking that we were all being influenced by these same values and wondering about the sources.” She began to realise that the phenomena she had covered in culture since the nineties when she began was all connected. “I saw an exponential trajectory in which The American Dream had become progressively corrupted and exported globally, and taken us on this very scarily unsustainable path where it seemed like we were sowing the seeds of our own destruction. So, I felt a lot of urgency in terms of really understanding what it all meant and looking at the photographs as evidence of the way we had changed as a culture.”
It was also the first time that the documenter was documented. Greenfield, her children, and her parents are also captured in the film. It was, she admits, her biggest challenge so far. “The movie really brings together a lot of ideas. It covered a big time period. It brings together a lot of characters. It forced me to do a really, really exhaustive dive in the work. The craft of the movie is very complex – it’s a lot of interwoven stories. And it forced me to look at myself,” she admits. “I started to see how my own passion-addiction to my work also took me away from my family, took me away from taking time to smell the roses, that my work was an all-encompassing way of being in life that sometimes had consequences for the people around me. So with this project, I had my own waking up.”
Paradoxically, Greenfield also sees it as her biggest achievement. “It’s my first personal film. It was cathartic in many ways. As I looked at the culture, it forced me to also look at myself and why I was drawn to it and how, in a way, I was also part of Generation Wealth. How we’re all complicit in it. It seems to me to be my deepest and most personal work.”
At the beginning
Greenfield is now established as both a documentary photographer and documentary director. That was not how her career began. Although she began study of both at school, photography was something that she could go out and do. At the time, film was just too expensive. She didn’t get accepted into film school, but was encouraged by her husband, to “do your photography and through that you’ll be able to do whatever you want”. Greenfield then gained an internship at National Geographic, which allowed her to break through the first wall of an embryonic career.
When she completed Girl Culture, she took it to HBO and told its commissioners that she wanted to make a series based on it. HBO commissioned it as a film. “So even though I started photography and directing at the same time, I didn’t really get a chance to make a film until almost fifteen years after I’d graduated from college,” she recalls. “But it was OK, because it was like I was in training. And when I made my first film, I brought a lot of what I’d learned as a photographer – about people, about capturing moments, about access, relationships, and integrity – as well as a journalistic sensibility to the process. Even though it was my first film, I felt as though I was able to bring a lot of myself to it.”
Greenfield’s next film, Thin, was produced in cinéma vérité style, which Greenfield likens to photography. “I was able to capture moments, not as a fly on the wall, but as someone who is so accepted that people can live their lives right in front of you,” she explains.
A career shaped by passion
Greenfield’s passion for issues, for cultural and societal foibles, grew in parallel with her development as a photographer. At Harvard, she studied social studies and visual anthropology. “In a way, I was interested in culture as much as I was interested in photography. Photography for me was always a way to get beyond my own fear, my own shyness, and connect with other people,” she explains. “But I was also really interested in the idea of what moments in my pictures showed about society. I was inspired equally by the works of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Cartier-Bresson, and the way that moments told something about our society that we didn’t know before we saw that picture.”
Describing her work as “long-term embedded photography that’s both journalistic and somewhat anthropological or sociological”, Greenfield notes that she tries to understand, to use the empathic lens of photography to understand human behaviour. “For me, Generation Wealth, for example, was about understanding not just greed, but the psychology behind greed,” she explains. “And I think in the movie you’ll see that in a way it’s not about money at all, or acquiring wealth, but it’s about the psychology behind that. The feeling that we’re less makes us want to be something else, to have more. The ‘more’ is defined in money and wealth, but it’s also defined by image, by beauty, by sexuality, by fame . . . by all of these other things that we’re striving for.” The ‘more’ that people quest for is defined by all of the things that are the topics of Greenfield’s works.
Like A Girl: Passion meets serendipity
In 2014, a project came to Greenfield that put her at the centre of a seismic shift in gender equality. It was an advertising campaign by the Leo Burnett agencies in Chicago, London, and Toronto for a Procter & Gamble brand of feminine hygiene products, Always. Like A Girl’s original aim was simply to restore girls’ confidence, which was seen, in studies, to sag around puberty. It did a lot more than that. For Greenfield, it was “a wonderful little miracle that none of us who worked on it had any idea it would become what it did”.
Greenfield recalls: “Leo Burnett came to me with this idea of looking at the words, ‘like a girl’. They allowed me to develop a social experiment around the phrase that was real, so I was able to bring my documentary chops and also my experience with girls and gender to look at what the words mean. I have to admit that I did not actually know how devastating the words were before I did the experiment. In my family, my dad had treated me – in a way like a boy – the same as my brother, so I didn’t know that pain of being insulted as a girl.” While she documented the experiment, Greenfield tried it on her own sons. “I saw that my youngest boy, who was about eight, was just kind of silly. It didn’t mean anything to him. But my eldest, who was about fourteen at the time, started making fun of running like a girl in a way that he must have learned in the locker room or somewhere. Even though he has a feminist mum, he was still familiar with that negative stereotype.”
The results of the experiment aligned with Greenfield’s “home test”. “By the time people we interviewed were teenagers, being a girl meant being silly and weak and somebody to make fun of. It was a really amazing project because it was able to document what was hiding in plain sight. It was so unanimous among the people we interviewed, and it was so obvious. Yet when people saw it, they were like, “Shit, it’s not OK for ‘like a girl’ to mean something derogatory and disempowering for half the planet.” The ad spread like wildfire outside of its media placements. After its first screening at the Super Bowl in the US in 2015, it was viewed by approximately 218 million people, and in the first three months received roughly 4.4 billion media impressions.
Documentarian with a dash of activism
That ad almost turned Greenfield into a commercials director full time, she admits. But it didn’t. The documentary work and passion projects have always been the priority in her practice. More importantly, “it was the first time I almost crossed over into being an activist,” she states. “My work has always been as a documentarian, as somebody who shows the problems, thinking that changemakers will see the work and make change based on understanding the problems, but I never wanted to be an activist myself. I wanted just to show people what was out there.” Like A Girl did that, she notes, “but it was also such a call to action. And in a very gratifying way, it was also the first time that I was able to see in such concrete ways how my work could make a difference, just from the thousands of letters from people saying ‘I cried’, and ‘I’m going to be an astronaut like a girl’, and ‘I’m going to climb a mountain like a girl’.”
Like A Girl made a difference to other ways of thinking as well. “It shifted the paradigm of advertising because people realised that an ad wasn’t just about showing how great a product was, but that it could also be about showing what a company stood for,” Greenfield explains. “And that those values might be something that consumers want to align with. That was very freeing. It empowered women, and myself as a director too, because it won so many awards, and when I went to these awards shows like D&AD and Cannes Lions, it was very striking to see how most of the other teams behind the ads in contention were all male, and often white male, groups.” Among its many awards, Like A Girl won the highest advertising award possible, a D&AD Black Pencil, as well as one of the inaugural Glass: The Lion for Change awards at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
Follow your heart
Like A Girl came to Greenfield because she had built up a body of work that established her as a visual documenter of cultural and societal issues, especially those of women, through unrelenting passion. And if you ask her how to choose great subject matter, she cites her first teacher’s advice, “follow your heart”.
“I think there’s no greater subject matter than ‘the one for you’. For me, I connect with people. When I met Jackie Siegel at her house for The Queen of Versailles, for example, I saw this mansion that was also super messy and lived in, and all of these immigrants from the Third World who were working there as nannies, and maids, and gardeners that were also somehow part of this dysfunctional family. In some ways, it was a microcosm of The American Dream. She and her husband were building an even bigger mansion because they had decided that 26,000 square feet wasn’t enough. There were all these animals and giant commissioned portraits of them on the walls, almost as kings and queens. One portrait was literally of them as a king and a queen. And yet, Jackie was so down-to-earth, even though she was living in this larger-than-life world. I fell in love with her as a character and what I could tell through her about America, its culture and the flaws that led to our access and crash, through their story. That was the perfect subject for me.”
When she did Thin, Greenfield adds, it wasn’t that she had been dying since she was a little girl to look at eating disorders, but it was more that through her work on Girl Culture, she realised that eating disorders were the most pathological and tragic example of how girls use their bodies as their voices. “I guess that I’m always looking for both the individual, the character, and also what’s the bigger story – what does this say about us, how we live, what we care about, what our flaws are, what the culture is telling us to do. I’m always looking for the micro and macro.” She notes as an afterword, though, that “one’s heart” is different for everyone.
A unique business model
It’s unlikely that Greenfield will ever have to “tout for work” again. She has created a body of work with historical significance. But she has also created an interesting business model. And that was not entirely by design. Her major works are multi-platform – book, film, and exhibition. That, she admits was partly by design, but also just turned out to be a good idea. “Frank, my husband, is my producer and he is always interested in the multi-platform approach,” she explains, “because it’s so hard now with all the noise and all the culture to actually say something that lands and communicates to a large group of people.”
For Generation Wealth, Greenfield originally planned only the book and exhibition, but she realises that all three elements communicate in different ways and tell different stories, even though they have the same title. She always does the interviews for her books on audio or video tape. As she was sorting through them for Generation Wealth, the voices started coming alive, she states, and made her want to make a movie. She also became interested in going back to a lot of the young people she had interviewed, which is what she does in the movie, to see and show what had happened to them. “I was looking at this whole circle of life. When I landed at school, it inspired the beginning of this work. I was the same age as my children are now,” she notes.
The other thing that moved Greenfield to do the film is, “while photography work is the most complete – it’s the most anthropological and encyclopaedic and uses typology and repetition to show how this experience is and how these influences affect people from very different walks of life – the limit of photography is that it can stay on the surface. It can feel voyeuristic in some ways. People can look at the pictures and think they’re people unlike themselves, whereas with film, it’s so empathic and emotional that you do get the chance to actually walk in the shoes of the subjects, even though they might be very extreme situations or subjects. What’s important to me is how they speak to and inform the mainstream.”
If passion is the key to success, then Greenfield is the paradigm. But Greenfield is more than a successful photographer and director, she is a historian – a documenter, not of the world as it is or was, but of the psychology behind it. She dares to show that what the world thinks is cool can be tragic. The world is unlikely to forget about her work.