“What is happiness?” Don Draper once asked in bitterly rhetorical fashion. “It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. That memorable line came in the middle of a drama that spent more than 70 hours of television unpacking a question to which its protagonist only pretended to know the answer, as “Mad Men” exhaustively pressed through the latter half of the 20th century and peered behind the curtains of capitalism in search of a less elusive solution.
Who are we, and how do we measure our worth? Is enough ever enough, or is it fundamentally unAmerican to believe that someone can have too much money? If the show ever came to a simple conclusion, it was only that there are no simple conclusions — happiness is ultimately just an advertisement for itself, a catchy jingle for a product that isn’t for sale. We’re all told that it’s something that money can’t buy, but how can we ever know for sure? Wouldn’t things be so much clearer if we just had a little (or a lot) more money? Of course love and family are the only riches that really matter, but our entire way of life hinges on one self-evident truth: Knowing that and believing that are two very different things.
So how, after a long and impressive career devoted to chronicling our collective obsession with money, does Lauren Greenfield so thoroughly miss the forest for the trees with her superficial new documentary? How, after a lifetime spent in the thrall of humanity’s insatiable desire for more, does the photographer/filmmaker who made “The Queen of Versailles” wind up with a retrospective film that ends by suggesting people just get over it and take stock of what really matters? It’s hard to understand how anyone so capable of diagnosing this problem can also believe themselves capable of solving it — so hard, in fact, that the last 20 minutes of “Generation Wealth” might compel you to reconsider the value of the 80 minutes before them.
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An overlong advertisement for Greenfield’s monograph of the same name (yours for the low, low price of $50 on Amazon), “Generation Wealth” looks back at a body of work that speaks for itself. Ever since she was a teenager inspired by the privileged toxicity of Bret Easton Ellis’ “Less Than Zero,” Greenfield has been fascinated by many of the questions that most of us would rather ignore. Questions like: “How do we commodify our own value”? and “why the hell can’t we stop”? In Greenfield’s latest documentary, the director takes stock of her own journey, reflecting on her addiction to work (and the various desires that it implies) through the lens of her most extreme subjects.
All of these people are clearly symptomatic of something, but “Generation Wealth” is too choppy and uncertain to know what that something might be; the film ping-pongs between hyper-specific details and generalizations so broad they almost seem intended to smudge the connections between Greenfield’s subjects. What does former porn star Kacey Jordan — who once received a $90,000 paycheck from Charlie Sheen — have in common with the bus driver who spent all of her money flying to Brazil for cheap (and regrettable) plastic surgery? And what do the two of them have in common with a young star from the reality show “Toddlers and Tiaras,” who was essentially worshipping money at three years old, and became a has-been in her business by the time she was five?
For one thing, each of them could be the subject of their own film. For another, they all represent the literal and/or figurative pornification of American culture, which subjugates women by putting a price on their youth and sexuality (“Generation Wealth” is at its strongest and most incisive when exploring how one half of the population pays a greater penalty for our dominant priorities). But these people, each reduced to a muddled portrait of their personal ambitions and regrets, all come across as caricatures of the abstract forces that guide even the most average of lives.
Greenfield doesn’t sap them of their humanity, but the tragedy of their bizarre pursuits suggests a kind of parody, especially when the filmmaker tries to use them as a conduit to better understand her own obsessions. Nobody should be shamed for doing sex work, but it’s hard to compare a workaholic director who’s always recording her kids (to their great annoyance) with someone who contracted salmonella(!?) after performing a scene with more than 50 different men. The parallels that Greenfield traces between them are hazy at best, though Jordan’s difficulties with pregnancy feed into the film’s greater concern for children who are born into the all-consuming frenzy for money. Some of them might never have a chance.
That seems to be why white-collar criminal Florian Homm is introduced talking about the time he bought a prostitute for his teenage son; the mania for wealth breeds a belief that everything can be bought. Except, Homm’s son appears to be well-adjusted, while Homm himself — who eventually learned the error of his ways — feels as though he was just the only reformed tycoon who was willing to speak on camera and fill his stories with salacious details. His voice is added to the chorus of voices telling us that money can’t buy happiness, but the cacophony is unconvincing. Judging by their experiences, that’s a lesson that everybody has to learn the hard way.
Perhaps that’s why Greenfield was compelled to lace “Generation Wealth” with her own reductive voiceover, as though hearing these ideas echo back at her might be the filmmaker’s only hope for internalizing their message. Judging by her climactic decision to spend more time with her family — a lightning bolt epiphany that’s presented as a disingenuously simplistic cure-all — we can only trust that making this movie did the trick. That’s great for her, but it’s worthless for the rest of us. The only meaningful takeaway from Greenfield’s documentary is that happiness is something we all have to define for ourselves. Of course, you already knew that.
“Generation Wealth” will be released in theaters on Friday, July 20.