What are you really like? And what do gold handbags, gleaming sports cars, glittering jewellery, luxury villas and ‘killer bodies’ have to do with it? For some people, these things are so important to their identity that they go so far as to hire a flashy car in order to show it off on Instagram, in imitation of Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and accounts like Rich Kids of London. American photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield (b. 1966) has been concerned with the subject of ‘wealth’ for 25 years, portraying both the ‘rich and famous’ 1% and those who do everything in their power to project the same image. Later this year The Hague Museum of Photography will be showing Generation Wealth, the first major retrospective of Greenfield’s work. With over 200 photographs and several short films, Generation Wealth promises to be an impressive account of some people’s burning desire to appear wealthy at any price. This exhibition was produced by and debuted at the Annenberg Space for Photography.

Xue Qiwen, 43, in her Shanghai apartment, decorated with furniture from her favorite brand,
Versace, 2005. © Lauren Greenfield
Ilona at home with her daughter, Michelle, 4, Moscow, 2012 © Lauren Greenfield / Fotomuseum Den Haag.

LA in the 1990s

Lauren Greenfield began her explorations in the 1990s in Los Angeles, the city where she grew up. In this centre of the emerging celebrity culture that was being fuelled at the time by MTV, ever greater emphasis was being placed on materialism and the body. Greenfield initially worked as a press photographer, though she was also producing autonomous work at the same time. 1997 saw her first exhibition and book, entitled Fast Forward.

One of Lauren Greenfield’s early photos is a 1993 image of 18-year-old Mijanou from Santa Monica. She was playing truant that day to go to the beach with her friends for the annual Senior Beach Day. From the start of her Generation Wealth project Greenfield made a habit of interviewing her subjects. Mijanou told her about her life in Beverley Hills. ‘You grow up really fast when you grow up in Los Angeles. LA is so fast-moving and the kids really mature at a young age. It’s cooler to be old (…) I was Homecoming Queen. I was Junior Princess. The seniors voted in a poll at the end of the year, and I won for Best Physique. I was very flattered. You’re more easily accepted if you’re pretty or good-looking. People with good looks get away with much more than somebody else would.’

American Dream to excess

Generation Wealth is not about the rich and famous, but about the burning desire for more. Under the influence of role models like Kim Kardashian, this desire becomes a driving force, but also increasingly an unrealistic quest for people from all levels of society. Many accrue huge debts acquiring more luxury goods and trying to conform to an ideal.

Lauren Greenfield’s early work soon turned out to be prophetic when this American Dream taken to excess began to spread around the world. Greenfield then took her project to other countries, inviting her viewers into the homes of Russian oligarchs, resorts in Dubai and the private yachts of China’s nouveau riche. Her photoreportages are amusing, moving and shocking. In combination with the interviews, the photographs show the bond of trust Greenfield manages to build with her subjects.

The Queen of Versailles

In 2007 Lauren Greenfield met Jackie Siegel at a private opening at a Versace store. She followed Jackie and her husband David, thirty years her senior, as they built their new home, a villa in the style of Versailles. Valued at 100 million dollars, this was to be the largest home in the United States. Greenfield asked the Siegels why they wanted to do this. ‘Because we can’, David answered in a deadpan voice. While she was following them, however, things went wrong. Bankruptcy loomed when the credit crisis struck and, still under construction, the house in Florida was put on the market. The documentary film The Queen of Versailles (2012) received no fewer than 26 nominations and won eight awards.

About Lauren Greenfield

Lauren Greenfield was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1966 and grew up in Venice, Los Angeles. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Harvard University in 1987. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers, including ELLE, The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar, Le Monde, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Greenfield has made five short and four full-length documentaries.

Exhibition, book and film

Lauren Greenfield’s long-running project has produced an exhibition, a book and a film. The documentary Generation Wealth (2017) opened the Sundance Film Festival 2018. The book of the same name containing 650 photos and 150 interviews has been published by Phaidon (€69.95). The exhibition was produced by Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, where it was first shown in 2017. The show at The Hague Museum of Photography will be the first time the exhibition has been seen in its entirety in Europe.

The Hague Museum of Photography would like to thank the Erik Bos Fund. 

Limo Bob in his office, Chicago, 2008 © Lauren Greenfield / Fotomuseum Den Haag.
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