Is the obsessive need to use a camera another addiction in our culture of narcissism and excess?
In her new film Generation Wealth, director Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles) takes a look at the growing obsession with wealth around the world, and it’s like 1905 up in here. By that, I mean that the worldwide concentration of wealth by the very stinking rich has reached the levels of early 1900s America. Are regular people fed up with materialism? Are the Super-Rich finally happy?
Greenfield is no stranger to the world of this story. In the film, she returns to the expensive private school in Santa Monica where she first picked up a camera to document her schoolmates’ obsession with money. Since then, she’s spent nearly 25 years as an “insider-outsider” to the world of the wealthy, taking nearly half a million photographs. In the film, she follows up with many of the people in those photographs to find out where our culture is headed.
Greenfield eventually turns the camera on herself, calling into question her obsession with her own work. “You have a problem,” reads a hand-scribbled paper that her son holds up in front of her ever-present camera. Only a small part of Generation Wealth is about Greenfield and her own obsessive workaholism when it comes to her camera. And yet it’s enough to make a filmmaker think hard, especially if you’ve been putting your filmmaking above all else in the hopes of making it big.
As the documentary is now in theaters, No Film School spoke with Greenfield about creating the 'environmental portrait' technique in the film, working with flawed subjects, and how to stay true to your art in the face of obsession and money.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyfC1AVhfb8
No Film School: You’ve been documenting wealth through film or photography for about 25 years now. How did you become a photographer?
Lauren Greenfield: I really learned at National Geographic (that was kind of my boot camp) and also at Harvard in the Visual Studies department. I started in high school, and I go back to that work in this movie. I think that I always felt a little bit like an outsider and in a way, being an insider-outsider is a natural stance as a photographer, at least if you're doing social documentary work.
For me, the big leap was when I realized that rather than doing exotic foreign cultures, I needed to look at my own culture. As a filmmaker, there’s a lot that comes from my photography, and one of the things I'm very focused on is craft. That's really important to me, the composition and the color and the visual way that the story is told. When I do an interview, I never want to do the 60 Minutes-tight interview with the background thrown out of focus and some kind of generic background.
NFS: And then the cut back to your reaction...
Greenfield: Yes. I'm always really looking for what we call in photography, the environmental portrait. Arnold Newman was really famous for this: a photograph where the background of the photograph, the environment of the photograph, tells as much about the person as the person's expression. In this movie, you see a lot of different interviews, but there is information there, visual and psychological narratives, that impact how you hear it. The interviews are almost like verite or reportage in what you get from them.
"The background of the photograph, the environment of the photograph, tells as much about the person as the person's expression."
NFS: What was your approach for choosing and working with the subjects in the film? Many of the characters are revealing aspects of themselves that are quite flawed. What is your philosophy in navigating through that?
Greenfield: Truth and integrity is really important to me. I'm really careful about what I use and how I use it. I've always worked in a journalistic process. The way I found a lot of the people was either through my work as a photojournalist, through a magazine assignment, or through my own research because I am doing a photography project. I met almost everybody in the film through my photography work.
When I first met Kacy Jordan, for example, I was photographing for GQ. I didn't even get the initial access—they did—and I just arrived and met her. She was so interesting that I reached out to her afterward for this movie. This was the same process I had with a lot of the subjects in the film. What was really rewarding about this film was being able to get to go back to people, to have them give permission again, with the experience already of being in the work. I feel really grateful to the subjects in the film because they're really the truth tellers about the culture, their culture, and our culture.
They're so honest about it, so vulnerable, and because of this, we don't judge them; we can see ourselves in them too. That's also why I included myself in this film, because my subjects do make themselves so vulnerable and are so authentic on camera with their flaws. I think it's their flaws that help us get access to them and relate to them. I felt like I needed to be willing to do that with myself too, with my flaws, and it seems like that's a way that people can relate more to the characters in the film.
NFS: Do you have a specific strategy when you sit down with one of your characters for an interview?
Greenfield: Well, usually I know them at that point. I try not to go in cold to interviews. Generally, I try to already know them so that there's a comfort level there and I have some ideas about what to ask them and what I really want to know.
I try to keep it like a conversation. I try to bring the qualities of, if you're just talking to somebody, how you would make that person comfortable? I try in the work to not be judgmental. My work has often been very critical of the culture of this generation, but it's not critical of the subjects. It looks at how they're interacting with the culture, being affected by the culture. Oftentimes, they're the ones who are actually the truth tellers about the culture.
Adam, the 13-year-old in the beginning of the film who is dancing with the Go-Go dancer at a Bat Mitzvah, says, "Money ruins kids." But he also says, "You have to have a $50,000 Bat Mitzvah." It’s really interesting to me that he could be completely wrapped up in the culture, feel the pressure himself, be totally participatory, while also being critical of the situation. I've tried to do that too. I don't feel like I could move off-the-grid and do this cultural critique. I live right in it and often work right in it. I've photographed fashion. I've photographed pop stars. If I wasn’t doing that for the mainstream magazines, there's no way I’d get access to this world.
"I really don't want to trivialize any of the addictions, but I also did want to say that our actions have consequences, and that my actions have consequences."
NFS: An interesting part of the film includes your story where, for example, your son holds up a sign and says, "You have a problem." Is that something that you questioned along the way as well, the idea of, "Is my photography part of this culture of excess?"
Greenfield: It happened along the way. I think part of it was, I was interviewing Florian. I was on this trip to Germany and Iceland, and I'm away from my family, and he's telling me about the costs of being away from his family. I mean, I'm not trying to equate my addiction with the characters', as their consequences are a lot more grave. For example, with an eating disorder, that's a life-threatening illness. Doing work that I love is not life-threatening. I really don't want to trivialize any of the addictions, but I also did want to say that our actions have consequences, and that my actions have consequences. Even doing this work that I love has consequences on my family that I wasn't really aware of. I woke up to that in the process of making the film.
Greenfield: In a way, being part of the culture, having similar reactions, has given me the motivation and the ability to see the things that I've documented, from being a high school student wanting designer jeans, to being in my early 30s getting offered Botox, to all of the life stages where I'm not outside of it. We are all complicit in this culture. I think using extremes is really helpful to see things. In a way, you need to see the woman who becomes a prostitute or a stripper to make the connection between how we dress our girls and the complete dehumanizing commodification of the female body. That connection needs to be made, and it can't be made without a prostitute.
I think my thoughts about being a workaholic came out of this interview with Florian. I realized after I did my first interview with Noah that I didn't ask him about what is was like to be a part of this work from his point-of-view. When I did my second interview, that came up, his elating it to me and relating it to my mom, in conjunction with Florian's story and Suzanne's story, and just how crazy I was working during this project.
This book [Generation Wealth] was a crazy, irrational project. We went through more than half-a-million pictures, and my curator, my editor, my film editors....I was really burning everybody out. I think, in the end, it was necessary to make this work, but it wasn't a normal thing that humans do. A labor of love is too soft. It was an obsession to go through half-a-million pictures. And yet, I didn't feel like I could leave any stone unturned.
"We're replacing that with this vernacular photography, which is cool and expressive, but doesn't have the lasting visuals of the Pulitzer Prize-winning pictures..."
NFS: Being a filmmaker myself, I was thinking about my own pursuit of filmmaking, parallel to the proliferation of people making films, to the extent that now people have access via their phones. Everyone is videoing, photographing on a daily basis. Do you see a relationship between the excess, in terms of the growth of people making their own films?
Greenfield: Well, I think it's really hard to make a good film. I feel like every time I make a film, it's the hardest thing I've ever done. So I don't think the technology makes it any easier. I've always felt that about photography too. Part of what I tried to do in this film is document the history of photography and filmmaking, in the sense that we go from black-and-white to slides-to-digital, and you see the process in the movie.
I think it's great that the means are more democratic and I think what's important is that we can hear from more diverse voices, and that's really, really key. It's no easier to tell stories today, however. I did a project where I mentored kids photographing the landmarks of Los Angeles, what they felt were their landmarks, after the riots. I gave them cameras that were pretty easy to use, because the point was really their images, not the technical part.
I do feel like the technical part is important, and I feel sad for some of the craft and our understanding of lighting that's going as we lose analog cameras. It is a little bit at the end of print photography. When I grew up, having a spread in The New York Times Magazine was just where everybody looked, where everything mattered. In the same way for the generation before me, it was Life Magazine. But now people don't look to the magazines as being where culture is coming from. When I did the viral spot Like A Girl, it was seen by 218 million people, and to me, that was the new medium that you reach people in.
It doesn't mean the photographs are as good. They're not. I think journalism and photojournalism are in crisis because the funding is not there anymore. We're replacing that with this vernacular photography, which is cool and expressive, but doesn't have the lasting visuals of the Pulitzer Prize-winning pictures that are burned into our brains.
NFS: The tools don’t make a film good, but since you've had such a long career as a photographer and being interested in the consistency of your craft, what did you end up using on Generation Wealth to keep with that?
Greenfield: I use mostly Canon. That's what my still photography is, and so I mostly use that across the board, in terms of lenses and everything. When I'm shooting an interview or verite, I always have a really good sound person, separate sound. I'm not operating the camera. I have a cameraperson, often somebody I've worked with for a long time who tries to incorporate the aesthetic of my photography. For the interviews, a lot of times we're using lights too.
On the other hand, in this movie, there's also a ton of stuff that I just shot by myself with a DSLR and a Zoom in the field because it was just me, or me and a photo assistant. Where the film starts, I just have a tape recorder in a schoolyard. This film seemed to accept all of it. It wasn't like the sound was too bad that we couldn't use it. Modern tools can make the sound better. When we did the [photography exhibit], we printed the whole show in my studio. That wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago. Technology is allowing this amazing high-quality consistency across all media.
"Don't compromise that thing that you love."
NFS: Do you have advice for filmmakers reading this?
Greenfield: Follow your heart and do your own stories is my overriding thing. Whenever you try to do something that you've seen other people have success with, you're not going to be as good as that person. Rhe only thing that you're really special at is your own story. I think most of us get into this because we feel like we have a story to tell. Sometimes it takes a while to find that.
It’s important not to mix that journey up with making money. We all have to make money to survive and to buy cameras and all of that. Sometimes that means teaching or being a production designer or waitressing, or whatever that is. Don't compromise that thing that you love. I've tried to make a living by doing assignments, but I've always tried to have those assignments only be in the stories that I'm passionate about or that relate to stories or bigger projects that I'm working on. I might not know how, I might not know if it's going to go anywhere, but there's some kind of interest, as opposed to the soul-deadening work where we know, "This is a money job." You have to keep your passion fresh and inspired on that journey.