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Talking To Documentarian Lauren Greenfield About L.A., Celebrity Culture And 'Generation Wealth'

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When acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield was just out of college, she landed a coveted internship at National Geographic. Tasked with photographing a Maya village in the remote mountains of Chiapas, Greenfield found herself struggling with access and language barriers, and a deeper understanding of the culture of the people she was photographing. There happened to be a copy of Bret Easton Ellis's Less than Zero in the rental house where she was staying. When Greenfield, who grew up in Los Angeles, picked up the book in the Chiapas mountains, she saw her own culture anew.

"When I read it, I realized it had really resonated with what I had seen growing up, this world of jaded kids who had too much too early, this kind of alienation of young people, and this kind of running unsupervised without parents and this kind of numbing out," Greenfield recalled. "I just started thinking of the world I grew up in, and how it was just as interesting a culture to document as a foreign assignment. When I was coming up, that’s what you’re taught to go and photograph—a foreign culture or go to war—something that’s interesting and far away to bring it back for people to understand. But I started thinking about whether the culture in my own background might be worthy of the serious study that you’d do elsewhere.""That’s what inspired going back to L.A. and photographing Fast Forward as my first big project," Greenfield explained, referencing her seminal 1997 book of photography, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. Greenfield, a social documentarian who is also known for her book Girl Culture and documentary The Queen of Versailles, currently has a solo multimedia exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography that investigates the global obsession with wealth over the last 25 years. Generation Wealth, which opened earlier this month, includes 195 color-saturated prints, 42 first-person interviews, multimedia projections, and short films from throughout Greenfield's career.

“There’s no hiding from the eye of a truly great photographer. Lauren Greenfield has given us nothing short of an x-ray of our ambitions and ideals. In all of contemporary photography, no one is better at exploring the tension between what we covet and who we really are—between the mad dash for affluence and the price we pay for that pursuit,” Wallis Annenberg of the Annenberg Foundation said in a statement.

We talked to Greenfield about her Los Angeles roots, the rise of celebrity and materialism, the financial crash, and the meaning of "Generation Wealth."

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Can you give me an overview of how this exhibit came together?

I’ve been working on this since 2008, but full-time since 2012. The work from the show starts in the 90s in L.A., and goes over a 25-year period. When the financial crash happened in 2008, I realized a lot of the stories that I’ve been working on since the early '90s are connected, and [they] transformed into a kind of morality tale after the crash happened about the way we’ve been living, how our values had changed and about how materialism had become an important part of the American dream.

I started a process of both going back and looking forward. I started making new work that I felt completed this story that was missing. So, since 2008 I’ve been adding to this project and making new work for it, but also going back through old work with a curator. We went back through every file in the studio and looked through half a million pictures. We scanned over 10,000 slides. There was basically a new narrative I discovered in the crash. When I look back now, it was kind of a straight line from the '80s and the creation of Gordon Gekko and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street mantra “Greed is good,” which Oliver Stone meant as morality tale. He meant Gordon Gekko to be an anti-hero, but he ended up being a hero to a generation of people who entered Wall Street, including the Wolf of Wall Street and Florian Homm, a white-collar criminal who’s in this story. In a way, that’s the beginning: the '80s, Gordon Gekko and deregulation, and that has a straight line looking back now to the rise of Donald Trump. This period also is the period that my career of work has been in. I started in the early '90s; I was in school in the late '80s. This period captured my time of work and I realized that this period also represented a kind of key change in our values, going from traditional values of the American Dream and the idea of you work hard, and values of thrift, modesty, frugality, and hard work—that transformed into a culture of bling, narcissism, and an obsession with wealth and celebrity. The work tracks that shift in our culture and it does it in a lot of more specific focuses, some of which you know, like gender and girls’ bodies. But in the context of this work I looked at how it all interacts with capitalism and celebrity and the commodification of everything. With respect to girls, that meant the commodification of girls’ bodies, the way girls are sold too. That’s the breakdown of the 14 chapters and each one looks at a different area.

That sounds incredibly timely.

It’s weird. Of course I was working on this way before anyone took Trump seriously, and I was as shocked as anyone else that he actually won. In a way, his rise to power is the apotheosis of Generation Wealth and is the proof of what I was seeing. In a way, the full importance of it didn’t really set in until he was elected. There’s so many ways in which his personality and who he represents intersect with the work, from his obsession with gold or his fondness for the aesthetic of gold, and the kind of decor of wealth, the Corinthian columns, tall buildings with his name on it, his link to beauty pageants and the objectification of women, and all the beautiful women around him. And the fact that he’s a real estate mogul and a lot of this work centers around the housing boom and bust and home ownership as the central piece of the American Dream. And then, of course, his role as a reality star and the relationship between his life and celebrity, and the way he was also popular because of his celebrity.

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Have you ever photographed Donald Trump?

No, I never shot him. I was actually supposed to shoot him toward the end of The Apprentice, but just as we were setting it up, he decided to run for president. I feel like he’s kind of the unspoken piece or person in the work. And the other thing is the parallels between David Siegel [who is featured in the documentary The Queen of Versailles] and Donald Trump. He’s kind of an alter ego.

You seem to always imbue your subjects with a great deal of humanity. Wealth is an extremely loaded topic, and one that often comes with morality judgments. How do you manage to continually approach the people you're photographing as people?

What I hope people take from the show is that we’re all complicit in this addiction to consumerism. The point of the show is this kind of dark vision about who we have become as a culture, but it’s intended as a provocation of who we want to be. And I think that none of us are outside of this. First of all, we elected Donald Trump. Second of all, we’re all participating in this culture and I certainly am as well, having grown up here. I think that the point of the work is to deconstruct what we take for granted and to try to provoke thought around the things maybe we’re not taking apart on a daily basis. It’s not intended to criticize any one person. I guess the biggest thing I should say about the work is that it’s not about the rich, it’s about influence of affluence. The rich are part of the work and I think they have a disproportionate influence in the values and desires of other people.

This work is really looking at how those values affect people from very diverse backgrounds and also across race, across the country. One of the big things I’ve looked at since 2000 was the rise of materialism and branding in the post-communist countries like Russia and China—how in these places that had revolutions that leveled class, there’s been this mad grab for luxury, status, and the recreation of class. I intentionally really looked across different groups and the commonality I found are these values to be other than who you are and to fake it ‘til you make it that have been exported everywhere.

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I think the backdrop of this is more inequality than we’ve ever had and less social mobility than we’ve ever had. So in a way, this kind of fictitious social mobility is the only thing a lot of people think that they have. I feel like it’s something that we’re all a part of. I try to look at different pieces under the microscope because I try to fill a moment in the culture or a moment in a person’s life that can reveal what we would otherwise not see or take for granted, but it’s really with the intention of putting a mirror to all of us about the culture in which we’re all complicit.

Can you tell me more about that reading of "Less Than Zero" that sparked "Fast Forward"?

That’s what inspired going back to L.A. and photographing Fast Forward as my first big project. This work really comes out of that. This work starts in the '90s with that work from L.A., and a lot of the themes in the work start there. A lot of the changes in culture track back to that time, the rise of celebrity, the rise of materialism, growing up quickly in a media-saturated culture, the importance of image, girls learning at an early age that their bodies have value and what they do with that. A lot of the ideas that I’ve been working on start in L.A. and in a way L.A. was a kind of bellwether that ended up getting exported all over the world and I’ve tried to track that. One of the things I did was go back to all the Fast Forward work with the curator and we found a series of teenage parties that had Kim Kardashian at 12 or 13 in the photos. It was so funny because at the time I didn’t put her in Fast Forward because she wasn’t important to me, but going back, the rise of reality TV was such an important piece of this puzzle and I included that picture in the book and the show.

This interview was condensed for length and clarity.

Generation Wealth will be at the Annenberg Space for Photography until August 13, 2017. Admission is free. The Annenberg Space for Photography is located at 2000 Avenue of the Stars.