A couple of years ago, The Economist published a brief article arguing that money was making Native Americans poor and lazy. The piece, entitled “Of Slots and Sloth,” featured a photograph of a grinning Native man at a slot machine, and concluded that the distribution of casino revenue to tribe members ended up making them poorer by dis-incentivizing them from working. Citing a study from the American Indian Law Journal, The Economist said that while Native American reservations were plagued by poverty, alcoholism, and poor health, the “biggest problem” of all might be the distribution of gaming money among tribes, since it created indolence and held back innovation. Tribes that shared their revenue among members remained in poverty; by contrast, a tribe that didn’t distribute revenue had instead “used its casino profits to diversify into other businesses, such as harvesting huge mollusks for export to China.” Mollusk-harvesting was thought, by the Economist, to be a far more responsible use of Native Americans’ resources.
The Economist’s article was, of course, racist. But the problem wasn’t that the magazine had suggested that cash payments made Native Americans slothful. That is, after all, a question to be answered empirically (though it is also laden with value judgments about the alleged shamefulness of slothfulness). No, as with so much bigoted social science, the racist aspect is less about the questions that are asked than the questions that are not asked. There has never been anything wrong with the theory that being given free money can disincline a person to work. What’s objectionable is that this pathology is only ever detected in poor members of racial minority groups. Nobody ever proposes that the rich may be slothful thanks to the passive income that accrues from capital. Yet if a few hundred dollars a month from the reservation casino has corrosive effects on the work ethic of the destitute Indian, just imagine how fucked up the children of the wealthy must be. Why should there be so much investigation into what might be wrong with poor people, and so little investigation into what might be wrong with rich people? Dependency and dysfunction, if these are indeed useful sociological concepts, are surely just as present in those with money as in those without it.
This has been a recurring problem for sociology generally. We have endless studies of poor people, but very few of rich people. Bestselling ethnographies like Alice Goffman’s On the Run and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted examine the chaos and hardship faced by the American underclass, and there are plenty of diagnoses of the social and cultural ills of the deprived. But the affluent don’t get treated as specimens for social scientific study in the same way. Of course, we may believe that it’s good and proper for poorer people to receive the bulk of the attention; after all, to the extent that the lives of the poor give us insight into how poverty is generated, we might learn some lessons about how to stop it. But it’s also odd that social science knows so much more about the private and personal lives of one class than the other. After all, if any group qualifies as specimens of dysfunction, it is the wealthy.
Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth (Phaidon, $75.00) begins in Bel Air. Greenfield attended high school in Southern California, and became fascinated with the way social status and wealth operated there. She has since spent three decades photographing the lives of both the affluent and the aspirationally affluent. Generation Wealth, a massive compilation of photographs and interviews from over Greenfield’s career, is an attempt to provide a comprehensive look at the role of money, celebrity, and consumption in American life.
The Los Angeles tweens and teens we meet early in the book have become defined by the search for status through material acquisition. They buy multi-thousand dollar handbags to take to class. Other kids in their grade are given BMWs when they turn sixteen. They compete over whose family can afford the best designer clothes, the most elaborate bar mitzvahs, the biggest houses. We meet a 12-year-old whose working-class mother is bankrupting herself to finance the girl’s love of Ed Hardy designer tank tops. The daughter knows she is putting great financial strain on her mom, and says she sort of feels bad about it, but explains: “I want the world; I want designer clothes, I want eternal happiness, the fountain of youth. I want to be able to afford ritzy private schools. I want the best of everything. Money is most definitely important for everything on my list of what I want.” It is very difficult not to hate her.
We meet Emanuel, a sad-eyed teenager at the prestigious Harvard-Westlake high school whose family is not well-off, but who pressures his parents to buy him Cartier and Dior so that he can fit in at school. “I fantasize about being rich all the time,” he says. He dreams of having enough money to buy anything he wanted at the Hermès store, where a light summer jacket can run nearly $15,000. Emanuel thinks more money might help his parents’ marital tensions, which often arise from arguments over spending (and are possibly exacerbated by Emanuel’s own penchant for Gucci sweaters).
Some of the kids we meet are impressively self-aware. They realize that the world they live in is shallow and ultimately unfulfilling. “Money has ruined me,” says one thirteen year old. Emanuel knows it too:
“I’ve seen kids whose lives have been ruined by money. One of my friends lives with his mother in this huge empty house in Bel-Air—it’s like this skinny little lonely boy and his skinny lonely mom up in her bedroom. I was there four times, and I saw his mom once, for a passing moment. And I’m like ‘Do you see her more than that?’ And he goes ‘No.’ They talk through the intercom a lot, like, ‘I’m going to dinner.’ ‘Ok, bye.’ I felt bad for him. He’s unbelievably lonely and depressed. I think that distance is created when you have a lot of money.”
Greenfield’s Southern California is a world of ludicrous excess, where families have dog groomers, personal trainers, nutritionists, and nannies, and where one’s worth is measured in jewelry, cars, and handbags. It is also a world of acute image-consciousness, where people spend unbelievable sums of money attempting to remain youthful. “I’m unhappy with my cuticles,” says one 11-year-old who owns 32 pairs of designer jeans.
From L.A., Greenfield travels across the country, uncovering an American mania for consumption and excess. We meet Norbert Aleman, a septuagenarian cabaret proprietor who lives with five women and thirty peacocks in an Italianate Las Vegas mansion. There are the parents who pay an interior designer $40,000 to create a pink princess bedroom for their toddler. (The moment it is complete, the daughter announces that she doesn’t like pink anymore.) We visit a nightclub where a flying “Champagne Fairy” dangling from a wire bounces from table to table delivering high-priced alcohol, with one bottle costing $250,000. There are galas, premieres, and balls. Women in ridiculous hats attend horse races, men in cufflinks brood behind ornate desks. People consume caviar and truffles. (I realized that I have never actually seen either a truffle or caviar in real life, and did not know that there were still people who ate them. I am grateful to Greenfield for documenting such things.) We meet the “old money”: Harvard undergrads boozing in tuxes and sixth-generation members of the Newport yacht club. Then there are the gaudy nouveau riche, like luxury car rental tycoon “Limo Bob” in his furs and chains, or the McMansion-dwellers who stock their enormous libraries with books purchased by the foot. (One former model has elaborate built-in mahogany bookshelves filled entirely with hundreds of copies of a single volume: her own self-published collection of fashion photographs.)
Then Generation Wealth travels around the world, showing us how global mass media has allowed American hedonism and excess to be exported abroad. There is a Chinese real estate billionaire who lives in an exact replica of the White House complete with Oval Office, and who has built a ⅓ scale Mount Rushmore sculpture in his backyard. Also in China, a Harvard Business School graduate runs a finishing school where she teaches children of the country’s new elite to pronounce “Givenchy” and “Versace.” A Canadian socialite who surrounds herself with all things frilly and froofy says she has modeled her life after candy-factory heiress Truly Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We see Dubai’s most lavish hotels, Moscow’s oligarchical opulence. Everywhere, Greenfield succeeds in finding the most extreme absurdities and ironies that emerge from gross inequality, like the Russian models who wear designer “peasant chic” clothes. American hip hop producer will.i.am “regards his eight-bedroom home [in Los Feliz] as a place to create rather than a living space and typically sleeps in a small apartment down the block.” At a Santa Monica charity auction, women drink Moët and bid on designer handbags to benefit disadvantaged children. Another fundraiser for poor kids is described as “the social event of the year.”
Even amidst this vast carnival of profligacy and waste, however, Florida couple Jackie and David Siegel stand out. The Siegels, who have made a fortune in the timeshare business, are in the middle of building the largest single-family home in America, a 90,000 square foot faux-château just outside Walt Disney World. They call it “Versailles,” and when completed it will feature six pools, two movie theaters (one for adults, one for children), and an ice skating rink. The master bedroom alone is 10,000 square feet (which Mrs. Siegel acknowledges is “larger than most people’s homes.”)
The Siegels have taken conspicuous consumption to another level entirely. Jackie Siegel wears $10,000 ostrich-feather pants, and her shopping budget is up to $1 million a year. She has 13 children, because “when I found out I could have nannies, I just kept having kids.” (“I think she’s from South America,” Jackie says of one nanny. Another nanny—who has not seen her own children in nearly 20 years—lives in an outbuilding originally designed as a playhouse for the kids, who rapidly grew bored of it.) The Siegels are upgrading to Versailles because they feel as if their current 26,000 square-foot house is too small, even though they have to travel round it on Segways and call people in other rooms via cell phone. Asked why he has decided to build a 90,000 square foot home, David Siegel replies: “Because I can.” (Unsurprisingly, Siegel is a fan of Donald Trump, whose presidential victory he calls “the best thing that has happened to me since I discovered sex.”)
Greenfield is not just interested in the spectacle of exorbitant wealth, however. She wants to know not only how those at the very top behave, but how the aspiration for needless material goods has come to affect individuals from all classes. She is interested in what she calls “the influence of affluence,” the powerful hold that the fantasy of material prosperity has come to hold over the popular imagination. Greenfield implies that the “American Dream” has morphed from a desire to have a decent but modest life to a lust for as much as one can get, that instead of striving for relative comfort people now pursue gain for its own sake.
So we don’t just see the kids in Santa Monica; Greenfield also photographs working class teens in East L.A. and South L.A., to show how wealth shapes the value systems of even those who don’t have it. A Hispanic high schooler spends two entire years saving the $600 necessary for a limousine and clothes for his prom. People will spend what little they have on status symbols like high-priced sneakers and brand-name T-shirts. Greenfield reiterates the classic critique of consumption: that people come to find meaning in the stuff they have, or the stuff they think they’ll have someday, rather than in community, friendship, and family ties. Life becomes hollow and superficial, as jeans and jewels take the place of human beings in our hierarchy of values and priorities.
That superficiality goes beyond an obsession with couture clothes. Greenfield’s photographs also document the pernicious effects of the beauty industry in packaging and selling impossible ideals of women’s bodies, whether through Barbie dolls or child beauty pageants (“I’ll be a superstar. Money money money. I would have money as big as this room,” says six-year-old pageant contestant and reality TV star Eden Wood). Greenfield has some disturbing portraits of the world of plastic surgery, as women and girls (we see an L.A. teenager recovering from a nose job) modify themselves, sometimes to extremes, chasing an illusory perfection fed to them by mass media.
At the extreme end, women’s bodies are simply commodified and sold outright, through strip clubs and pornography. While she does not give an opinion on whether and how sex work should be regulated—a virtue of the book is that the photographs’ subjects are allowed to speak for themselves, with Greenfield’s voice seldom intruding—it is clear that Greenfield is dubious about the contemporary progressive consensus that sex work can be liberating or is indistinguishable from other work. Greenfield is clear that stigmatizing sex workers is wrong (we meet a college student who was kicked off the track team after it was discovered that she stripped to pay her tuition), and that these occupations can provide a certain financial freedom. Nevertheless, she wants us to be disturbed by an industry that turns women into lumps of flesh to be sold, an industry that only exists because women need money and men have it. Sex work, for Greenfield, is definitely degrading, though perhaps not much more so than any other kind of work that reduces the human being to a product.
In the background of all of this lurks Donald Trump, the man who has spent a lifetime selling people on a fantasy of the good life, and whose operation of the Miss Universe pageant and notorious abuse of women tie him closely to Greenfield’s idea of a capitalism that is ruthlessly predatory and patriarchal. Trump’s election makes for a fitting denouement to Greenfield’s thirty-year story, embodying all of her themes: greed, reality television, wealth without taste, the hollow lust for fame and power, sexism and objectification, and lies upon lies. As she says:
“Our highest public servant is a real-estate developer and reality-TV star who lives in a penthouse on the sixty-sixth floor emblazoned with his name and decorated in a Louis XIV style, with ceilings painted with 24-karat gold, marble walls, and Corinthian columns.”
Trump’s pitch to the American people was the same poisonous fiction that capitalism has been telling them for decades. As inequality worsens, Trump says: vote for me, and you can have it all. Unfortunately, you can’t have it all. All you end up with, like the students who spent $30,000 on a “Trump University” education, is a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump. He still lives in Trump Tower, and you still live in your shitty apartment. You can max out your credit cards to buy a Louis Vuitton handbag, but the people who run the world will still run it, and the doors of the club are never going to actually be open to you. If you’re lucky, the billionaires may generously allow you to pay them every cent you have for the privilege of feeling like you’re in the club.
But lies can never be lived indefinitely, and Greenfield’s book is also a chronicle of what happens when bubbles burst and people come face to face with reality. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, we meet the families who thought they had it made, only to suddenly find themselves with nothing. Greenfield surveys an America of broken dreams, empty swimming pools, and ghost estates. People squat in foreclosed houses, and half-built, uninhabited subdivisions are slowly reclaimed by nature.
The Siegel family never finishes building Versailles. People stop buying timeshares and David Siegel is forced to lay off large numbers of his employees and household staff, and to rent out his Rolls Royce. One of the Siegels’ daughters, Victoria, who seemed to have a pretty skeptical and down-to-earth perspective on her family’s outrageous lifestyle, dies of a prescription drug overdose at the age of 18.
There is a deep sadness that runs through Generation Wealth. Over and over, the oldest clichés about money and happiness are proven correct. People with money are lonely, cruel, and unfulfilled. Their lives are marked by divorce, drug abuse, and cultural degeneracy. Tolstoy’s famous observation that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is shown to be nonsense. At least among the rich, unhappy families look the same wherever you go.
The lessons are confirmed through testimony from some recovering 1-percenters. A former Wall Street trader can’t believe he once thought a $3.6 million dollar bonus was disappointingly small, and has dropped out to found a charity. A German fraudster wanted by the FBI has now (possibly cynically) embraced asceticism and Christianity, and declares that the pursuit of wealth will lead to ruin, since “capital has no conscience, it just wants to multiply.”
It’s not just those who have left the rat race who realize how laughable and meaningless it all is. One of the striking things about Generation Wealth is just how many people are fully cognizant of the silliness of their material lusts. They joke at their own expense, they know they are spending money on foolish things and that they have no good justification for why they want the things they want. Yet just as with racial prejudice or sexual desire or any of the other mysterious forces governing human behavior, knowing you have it doesn’t allow you to will yourself to be free of it.
Prestige and status are such strange things. You can know that they’re irrational yet still intensely desire them. You can realize that the cool kids are all a bunch of assholes who will grow up to live largely miserable lives, yet still feel flattered when they like you and rotten if they ignore you. Generation Wealth shows just how fundamentally ridiculous people’s value systems can be, yet how totally inscrutable the process is by which those value systems are implanted in the human subconscious. Why is it that everybody can know something leaves them unhappy yet continue to do it? If money doesn’t buy true satisfaction, and nobody would deny that, why haven’t people stopped spending their lives chasing dollars? Money must buy something. David Siegel says that it just allows you to be “unhappy in a good section of town.” Still, even after learning that lesson, Siegel himself continued to work twelve-hour days trying to rip off people with time-shares so that he could build a palace. He never saw his daughter, and had no idea she was addicted to drugs until her body was found after the overdose. Now, he’s seen the full tragic consequences of the worship of money. Yet as of 2016, Siegel was still trying to build the palace, still worshiping Trump. How can a force be so strong that even the death of a child can’t prise a person free from it?
Greenfield has compiled a bleak document of contemporary life. To her, social mobility is “fictitious and provided by designer brands.” We have witnessed the “erosion of family, religious, and community ties,” and are now locked in a endless futile cycle of aspirational consumption, buying stuff we don’t need to sustain a dream that will never come true. Everything is bought and sold, nothing is sacred, and the shopocalypse is nigh.
In this vision, America is Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Wall Street. It is Toddlers & Tiaras and My Super Sweet Sixteen. It’s McMansions. It’s Lil Jon’s diamond grill. It is Hugh Hefner’s house and Kim Kardashian’s ass. It is a country of strip clubs, casinos, and prosperity gospel megachurches. It is TrumpLand. The final photograph in Generation Wealth is of a naked stripper crawling to pick up dollar bills from a pile on the floor. It is clear what Greenfield thinks of us.
But there are more things in heaven and earth than casinos and strippers. The TrumpLand vision of America and the 21st century is neither fully complete nor fully accurate. Like all attempts to formulate grand, all-encompassing theories, Generation Wealth sacrifices complexity and nuance for the sake of rhetorical effectiveness. As a result, we get a more depressing view of the world than we necessarily ought to hold.
Because she is a top-flight photojournalist, Greenfield has managed to track down some uncommonly vapid people. Yet it is not clear how typical they actually are. Greenfield’s understanding of the world was forged during her youth in Los Angeles and her undergraduate years at Harvard. But these places are not the world, and the world is not these places. Southern California is known for its unusually high quantities of shallow and self-absorbed backstabbing ladder-climbers, who are drawn there because it is the hub of the entertainment industry. Thus if we want to understand what “people” are like, focusing disproportionately on L.A. will give us a funhouse-mirror perspective, one that exaggerates the prevalence of certain noxious traits.
As a piece of sociology, then, Generation Wealth is tainted by “selection bias”: Greenfield wishes to demonstrate how greedy and materialistic our society is, and has done so by finding and photographing lots of greedy and materialistic people. But that doesn’t actually address the question the book is supposedly answering, namely “How important is wealth in defining people’s identities today?” That’s because we’re looking only at the people whose identities are defined by wealth, rather than looking at a random cross-section of the human population.
Now, we might think that Greenfield is right, that this tendency is shared widely, meaning there’s nothing unrepresentative about her sample of airheaded Angelenos, billionaire Muscovites, chain-wearing hip-hop artists, Wall Street fraudsters, aging Playboy bunnies, bankrupted condo flippers, and Florida timeshare kingpins. But I suspect that’s not the case. After all, Generation Wealth rarely dwells on the lives of those we see in the background: the nannies and dog groomers themselves. When we do hear from them, they don’t actually seem to have bought into the value system that Greenfield ascribes to “us.” In fact, they seem somewhat bemused by it all.
But Greenfield explicitly wants to make a statement about what “we” are like, rather than what a particularly revolting subsection of us are like. As she says, her book is about how “we, as Americans, have gone from a traditional ethos, underpinned by Judeo-Christian values, of modesty, thrift, humility, and discretion… of helping others less fortunate, to a culture of bling, celebrity, and narcissism.” She asks: “How have we afflicted ourselves with a pathological state of material longing?” She even brings in lefty doom-preacher Chris Hedges, who says that nowadays “commodities and celebrity culture define what it means to belong, how we recognize our place in society, and how we conduct our lives.”
It’s the “we” that is such a problem. One is tempted to answer: “Well, you, maybe. But leave ‘we’ out of this.” What does it even mean to say that “we” are “pathological” in our material longings, that “we” no longer have humility, and live in a culture of bling? Does it mean that everyone does? And if it’s only some people, then which people, and how many? It’s obviously true that the tendencies Greenfield describes are present in American life, and that large numbers of people embrace them. But saying that those tendencies are American life, that they define us, risks mistaking a cartoon for reality. It’s certainly tempting, now that Donald Trump is the president, to think of Trumpism as a kind of national philosophy. But the vast majority of this people in this country didn’t vote for Donald Trump. He was hugely unpopular. A suggestion that Trump is a representative ambassador for the American ethos is simply wrong.
The question of representation comes into sharp relief whenever Greenfield photographs African Americans. In a photography book over 500 pages long, ostensibly about the role of wealth in “our” lives, nearly every black man in the book is a rapper (though Al Sharpton also pops up), and many of the black women are strippers. But, and this should not need to be said, most black men are not rappers. Greenfield has singled out the most materially ambitious subset of black males she can find, the ones who most embrace the kind of lifestyle that she is attempting to document, and suggested we can extrapolate from them. But we can’t. We should no more judge the black community by its most hedonistic rappers than we should judge white people by Duck Dynasty or NPR. You do not obtain a useful sociological understanding of a group by singling out its most ludicrously stereotypical members. It would be different if Greenfield had found the same tendencies among black teachers, truck drivers, insurance agents, postal workers, and clergy. But we should probably not allow the kids who want to throw fistfuls of dollar bills in the air to “make it rain” to speak on behalf of their race.
The good news, then, is that the world probably isn’t full of the kind of narcissistic people that Greenfield’s photos so vividly depict. We are not, thank goodness, all living in one enormous Southern California. Dog plastic surgery and toddlers in thongs are the exception rather than the rule. The ruthless pursuit of lucre is only one of the myriad ways in which people fill life’s deep existential void. But there are lots of others.
“Greenfield’s Southern California is a world of ludicrous excess, where one’s worth is measured in jewelry, cars, and handbags.”
Still, it’s not necessary to believe that “we” are in a “generation wealth,” or to buy into the apocalyptic ravings of Chris Hedges, in order to accept that capitalism does incubate a kind of cultural sickness. Everything Greenfield documents is disturbing, and it’s certainly also common. The Trumpian wealth fantasy may not be everyone’s dream, but heaven knows it’s plenty of people’s. And rampant consumerism does seem to be grinding up all worldly resources to build luxury sedans and shopping plazas.
I do think the problem is properly defined as “consumerism” or “capitalism” rather than “materialism,” though. A mild materialism is fine and harmless. Nice things are nice, and people should get to have comfortable chairs, big computer monitors, and soft fabrics in a variety of colors. An appreciation for quality objects is one of the joys of being alive. The problem seems to come when acquisition becomes the end rather than the means, when you cease to actually enjoy the things you buy, and begin to be compelled by the act of buying itself.
This is the dangerous tendency that capitalism engenders. Because it needs constantly to extract our money in the pursuit of profit, it does not tell us to have and enjoy lots of high-quality goods. It tells us to keep buying and buying, no matter what. The moment you get an iPhone—a truly incredible product, if we’re being honest—your model will be outdated and you will be encouraged to upgrade. It’s not the materialism that’s the problem, but the anxiety that comes of being told you never have enough. The problem isn’t that you and the Joneses both bought hot tubs, it’s that you are counting the number of jets in each other’s jacuzzis rather than sitting back and enjoying the bubbles.
The result of the status competition is that there are intolerable amounts of waste, and that that waste is for nothing, because it does not produce happiness. I am all for wasting resources on frivolity, if we all have a good time. But when we don’t, when we destroy the earth and all we get in return is a spiritual vacuum (and a stupid T-shirt), then some terrible mistake is being made.
As I say, though, not all of us are dwelling in a dystopia of nihilism and shopaholism. It is not Black Friday all over the world. Capitalism does indeed create a pernicious ugliness and lack of values. It does cause people to buy some of the most utterly pointless rubbish at the most outrageous prices (although, oddly enough, it’s often the consumption habits of women in particular, such as handbags and shoes, that are portrayed as the most absurd and unjustifiable, even such a feminist-friendly project as Generation Wealth). And it does cause people to be simultaneously incredibly busy, incredibly insecure, and incredibly sad. But it’s not all there is, and one should remember that for every person maxing out their credit cards at the mall or throwing wads of dollar bills at a stripper, there is another hanging out with friends at a dive bar, getting ice cream with their parents, or falling in love by a fire.
As a “theory of everything” that tells us “who we are now,” Generation Wealth is far too broad. As a document of the lives of certain people, and a particular hideous cultural consequence of capitalism, it is extraordinarily thorough and disturbing. Greenfield has made a serious contribution to a neglected area of sociology, and helped address the disparity between studies of the poor and studies of the affluent. She has probed, using incredibly vivid photographs and revealing interviews, the little-explored links between economics and culture. But it’s important to remember that we are not, all of us, a generation wealth. We are, like human beings of every generation, motivated by a conflicting and complicated set of aspirations and motivations. Capitalism has the terrifying tendency to turn people into the sorts of insatiably avaricious people depicted in this book. But it has not yet come to define us all.
And God willing, it won’t.