Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibit, with photographs of various sizes, videos, and extended captions divided into 11 separate sections, displayed against white walls/dividers in the ground floor and basement galleries. (Installation shots below.)

Ground Floor

  • Fast Forward: 19 archival pigment prints, 1 screen with images in rotation
  • The Princess Brand: 16 archival pigment prints
  • Sexual Capital: 15 archival pigment prints
  • New Aging: 16 archival pigment prints
  • The Cult of Celebrity: 16 archival pigment prints
  • Plus 3 videos (33 minutes, 5 minutes, 31 minutes) and an illustrated chronology

Basement Floor

  • Dream Home/Queen of Versailles: 11 archival pigment prints, 1 video, 1 screen with images in rotation
  • Bling Dynasty/New Oligarchy: 20 archival pigment prints, 1 video, 1 screen with images in rotation
  • The Fall: 31 archival pigment prints
  • The Legacy of Gordon Gekko: 16 archival pigment prints
  • Make It Rain: 14 archival pigment prints, 2 videos
  • Early Work: 20 archival pigment prints
  • Plus 1 video (28 minutes) shown in a darkened side room

A thick monograph of this body of work was published in 2017 by Phaidon Press (here). Hardback, 504 pages, with 625 color reproductions. Includes captions/essays by the artists and a foreword by Juliet Schor. The project website can be found here.

Comments/Context: On the surface, the wild excesses of the ultra rich are a remarkably easy target for contemporary photographic satire. It doesn’t take much thought to take a quick look at the lavish houses, the fancy cars, the designer fashions, and the rest of the bling found across the globe and then come to the conclusion that all of it is ostentatiously ridiculous. From there, the decision to make photographs that capture an entertaining caricature of that reality fall out relatively easily, and seeing such pictures, we can all have an arm’s length chuckle (even the extremely wealthy themselves) at these mocking examples of gauche over-the-top vulgarity.

But Lauren Greenfield doesn’t let us (as viewers) off that easily. For the better part of the past three decades, she has been systematically unpacking the metastasizing culture of wealth and following its insidious infiltration into nearly every corner of our lives. With the rigor and patience of a social scientist, she has gathered the visual (and verbal) evidence of layers of subtle changes in our attitudes, values, and aspirations, piecing together a cultural puzzle that turns out to be far more complicated and far reaching than we might have imagined. So when the sprawling but logically sequential exhibit Generation Wealth lays out all her findings, it’s hard not to be both overwhelmed and fundamentally dispirited by all that she has uncovered. She’s masterfully proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we’ve allowed ourselves to been sucked into an elaborately constructed and self-reinforcing trap.

The reason that Greenfield’s various supporting investigations and sub-projects function so effectively is that she has been extremely careful and consistent in how she manages her point of view. Even in the most comically absurd situations, she never gives in to the impulse to take sides and make a pictorial joke or a hectoring condemnation. Every subject is seen with an honest and sympathetic eye, even if their choices (and justifications, as seen in the often lengthy captions) might seem impossible to justify to most of us. So while many will visit this show and see a parade of head-shaking horrors and bad judgement on these walls, the fact is that each picture respects the authentic perspective of the subject, so much so that Greenfield forces us to get beyond the “what” of the particular version of excess being shown and to examine the much harder and more deeply rooted “why” of the impulses and societal forces that led to the crazy situations in the photographs.

Ostentatious displays of wealth are as old as human civilization itself, as they have typically been effective at signalling status, power, social position, and control of resources to others in the community. So while this kind of peacocking is nothing new, back in the late 1990s, Greenfield saw a new strain of this behavior start to emerge. Coming at the confluence of the 24-hour coverage of celebrity lifestyles and the broader merchandising of consumer luxuries, the idea that a person’s identity could be (or was) defined and expressed by mimicking of celebrities became more prevalent, especially among young people. Her Fast Forward project takes a look at the materialism of Los Angeles, and the proxy that such “trying to be somebody” displays of wealth were becoming for fame, attractiveness, and other factors of societal image making. From pictures of teenagers with nose jobs to sexy go-go dancers at bar mitzvahs, Greenfield started down the path of trying to systematically (and photographically) figure out why a 5 year old would want to dress like Britney Spears or why the Kardashians were famous even at age 13.

The next three sections of the retrospective consider the particular case of women in this new environment, and the roles and behaviors that such a culture increasingly expects. The Princess Brand extends the concept of the Barbie doll and the Disney princess into a full blown fantasyland, where beauty is considered the key to self worth and a woman’s role is to be an object of desire. Greenfield’s pictures track makeovers and weight loss camps, talent shows and prom limos, each a money-driven element of the broader attempt to attract attention, with the anxiety of inadequacy persistently simmering underneath. Sexual Capital picks up this thread a few years on, when the women are older and the seductiveness of bodies is even more prominent. Here the objectification of nude showgirls, porn stars, and sex workers seamlessly transitions into mainstream culture, with spring break bikinis (and topless parties), saucy underwear, and sexy exercise classes reminding women of how their bodies are manageable assets. New Aging takes this trend to its logical conclusion, with older women struggling to stay young, using increasingly extreme (and dangerous) surgeries, injections, and other oddball treatments to fight the ravages of time. These images are among the most unsettling in the show, both for their bluntness of skin cutting and for the outwardly confident but tacitly sad desperation that comes through from women who feel the need to chase such elusive fantasies.

Greenfield then pivots from bodies to material goods in the next two sections of the show, following the eccentric buying habits of the newly rich. Dream Home (which includes images and clips from her excellent documentary film The Queen of Versailles) gets inside the mansions of the wealthy, and tracks the same anxious to look rich/important/attractive attitudes from her previous work, these same instincts now embodied in lavish homes and furnishings. From exotic orchid greenhouses to the jungle pool at the Playboy Mansion, Greenfield pulls back the curtain on the idiosyncratic impulses and insecurities of new money. These behaviors then seem to be amplified when Greenfield turns her attention to the newly rich in China and Russia in Bling Dynasty/New Oligarchy, with gilded coaches, golf in the bedroom, golden shoes, and a full scale replica of the White House providing the “we’ve arrived” proof.

The inevitable cracks in the facade of wealth appear in Greenfield’s next two projects. The Fall tracks to boom and bust cycle in Iceland, Ireland, California, and elsewhere, following aggressive real estate developers and home flippers who got caught in the downdraft of the global recession. The lure of fast money, and the promise of the lavish lifestyles of those pictured on the other walls of the gallery, was their undoing, and images of weed-strewn yards and unfinished construction are balanced by intimate stories/portraits of foreclosures, jobs lost, families broken, and suicides. A similarly depressed mood lingers over The Legacy of Gordon Gekko, where Greenfield tracks down narcissistic hedge fund managers, tax evaders, and ponzi scheme peddlers, watching as they live out the consequences and repercussions of their greed. Cuff link collections transition to crying wives and prison fatigues, the whole dream of wealth turning out to be a hollow shell.

The last major section of the exhibit circles back to the excess, but this time from yet another vector, synthesizing the celebrity aspirations, the female bodies, the overt showmanship, and the money into one potent symbol, the Magic City strip club in Atlanta. Make It Rain takes its name from the flying dollar bills thrown around by wealthy patrons of the club, and the see-and-be-seen hustle taking place there is equal parts naked women and undiscovered rap stars, all vying for attention. The disparity between the swagger of the haves and the desperate dreams of the have nots is palpable, especially for those whose only available path to the fantasy of wealth is through the doors of the club.

When all these lines of attentive thinking about the complex nature of contemporary wealth converge, the combined weight of the falsities, failures, and disappointments is heavy, and the idea of hitting the shops after a day at the museum will feel depressingly grim. What Greenfield’s photographs bring home is the grasping neediness to which we have become accustomed, that constant push to buy something or consume something or change ourselves to generate a jolt of positivity or measure our worth. Generation Wealth holds up a mirror to this world, exposing all the social manipulations of acceptance, conformity, and aspirational reaching that have encouraged us to buy that designer jacket, that Botox injection, or that ornate mansion so we can convince ourselves we are like the celebrities. Greenfield’s photographs harshly unmask these instincts as hopelessly empty while still being quietly sympathetic to how those choices were made, and that very human futility is a hard pill to swallow.

So Generation Wealth isn’t exactly a fun exhibit. But it’s an eye opener and a thought provoker, and one I took my own teenagers back to see. As the summation of three decades of intense consideration, it is a sophisticated and broadly insightful study of one of the dominant cultural forces of recent years, and undeniably one of the most memorable photography shows of the year.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibit, there are of course no posted prices. Lauren Greenfield is represented by Fahey Klein Gallery in Los Angeles (here) and Institute Artists (here). Greenfield’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Lauren Greenfield, International Center of Photography, Phaidon Press

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