People say that if you grow up in LA, you grow up fast. That was true in the '90s, when Lauren Greenfield started using her camera to excavate the notion of wealth. There was no better city for such a quest than Los Angeles, an industry town where fitting in has long required a person to look the part. Greenfield pointed her lens at kids, adults, anyone who seemed to want more than they had—which turned out to be everyone. Very few people seemed satisfied.
But the '90s were another time. To think of Los Angeles as uniquely image conscious is now quaint in an era when image is everywhere, all the time, when photos of fancy vacations or well-dressed babies can be blasted around the world. Comparing yourself to your neighbors at a time when your neighbors are everyone on earth explains how the pesky work of Keeping up with the Joneses morphed into the endless aspiration to Keep Up with the Kardashians.
There’s no better explainer than Greenfield of what wealth means in the 21st century, and the stress and emptiness that can come from pursuing it. There are signs, too, that the money can bring genuine comfort—the good life: afternoons spent golfing, exotic trips overseas. But true pleasure isn’t top heavy; those at the top are just as prone to dissatisfaction. Having money tends to beget wanting more of it.
If wealth is the story of ambition, then so is Greenfield’s new book, Generation Wealth, which spans three decades of yearning, luxury, and excess. They are, easily, the most seismic three decades of wealth trends, when widening inequality, growing globalization, and frenetic social media alter people’s perceptions of themselves and their neighbors. Greenfield doesn’t judge the unflattering effects of these changes, but she does question them. In one image of a 12-year-old whose face is recovering from a nose job, Greenfield interrogates not the girl but her circumstance. “I took a critical look at a culture that makes a 12-year-old self-conscious about her looks to the point of financial and physical sacrifice,” she says.
The question, Is there anything that money can’t buy?, has always had an obvious answer. Community, health, joy. In Greenfield’s 2012 film, The Queen of Versailles, the billionaire mansion builder David Siegel jokes that being rich doesn’t make you happy, it just lets you be unhappy in a better part of town.
But there is evidence humans can change, that the pursuit of wealth has a limit. After the financial crash of 2008, Greenfield observed how Iceland, a country whose stilted banking sector was reduced to ashes, stopped trying to be what it wasn’t. Icelanders returned to their native industries—fishing and textiles—under the belief that a culture comfortable with its normal self might attract tourists (and it did).
Whether America has the same capacity to change, to alter how it views success, is a question for economists. But the answer is probably not. A culture and an economy built on growth don't leave much room for contentment. There's always something more to be had.
You can see more of Lauren Greenfield's work on the Institute website.