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Although the income gap in the United States began to expand in the 1970s, a decade later deregulation turned it into a chasm so wide it began to manifest in popular culture. Movies like Wall Street taught greed is good. The emergence of reality TV showed that experience and knowledge were no longer prerequisites for fame and fortune.
“[Trump’s] election is the apotheosis of generation wealth,” photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield tells The Hollywood Reporter, coining the title of her new project, “Generation Wealth,” a multimedia photo show, book and documentary film due out later this year. “It’s almost like this work helps explain how he got here. Not that it’s about Trump, but it’s about the culture that gave rise to his election.”
Beginning April 8, Greenfield’s photos will be on display at the Annenberg Space for Photography, just a few steps away from the headquarters of CAA. As you would expect, there are images of reality stars like Kim Kardashian and the Osbournes, as well as icons Joan Rivers, Elton John, Tupac Shakur, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds; such athletes as Tiger Woods and pop stars Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez. But there also are images of ordinary people who stretch their means to emulate their idols.
“Even though there’s one part about celebrities, there’s a bigger part about their influence and the way we compare ourselves to celebrities and try and match those images,” says Greenfield. Some of the photos are from a Greenfield project in the ‘90s called “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.” It includes students at Westside private schools like Harvard Westlake and Greenfield’s own alma mater, Crossroads School, a short drive from where she grew up in Venice. What she found were kids from families embedded in celebrity culture — attending movie premieres and sitting courtside at Lakers games — as well as their peers who longed to emulate them.
“I felt L.A. was a place where social class is defined exclusively by money, which is really different than in other times and other cultures where class might have to do with family background or education,” says Greenfield from her Boston editing suite. “If you ask a kid what he wants to be when he grows up, he says ‘I want to be famous.’ That wasn’t always the case. It used to be when you asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ they said, ‘I want to be a fireman, I want to be an astronaut.’ Being famous is not a job.”
After graduating from Harvard, Greenfield worked as an intern at National Geographic, where she got her first assignment photographing a Mayan village where her mother was researching cross-cultural psychology. Subsequent monographs, “Girl Culture” and “THIN,” look at self-esteem issues and bulimia in young women, and a documentary based on the latter was nominated for an Emmy in 2007. The Queen of Versailles, about billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel, who tried to build the country’s largest mansion amid the housing crash, won best documentary at 2012’s Sundance Film Festival.
“We used to compare ourselves to the person down the road who had a better house than we did. Then we started spending more time watching TV, and keeping up with Jones’ became keeping up with Kardashians. It’s like the American dream on steroids. Luxury became necessity, and that became really clear in the foreclosure crisis,” says Greenfield. “We were given these media-driven fantasies, and deregulation and cheap credit allowed people to realize these fantasies by borrowing more money than the value of their homes.”
Photos from Russia, China, and other countries show how the phenomenon has transcended borders. The global recession of 2008 was a wake-up call for nations like Iceland, which enacted banking regulations on its way to an exemplary recovery. But closer to home, half of Dodd-Frank is still being written even as Republican lawmakers plan a repeal.
“If we don’t choose another path, it’s destruction on many levels” is the dire conclusion Greenfield has come to. “To offer a little bit of hope, our values have gotten off track and we have the possibility of seeing it. Even some of the discussions that have been happening since Trump has been elected are kind of a wake-up, on many levels. I think there is possibility of waking up.”
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Representation in Hollywood