Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr “I probably know the names of the Kardashians more than the names of my neighbors,” Noah Greenfield says to the camera held by his mother, Lauren, in Generation Wealth. Greenfield has documented wealth and American culture for 25 years, most frighteningly in the 2012 doc The Queen of Versailles. But where Queen of Versailles was championed as a touchstone in documentary filmmaking, Generation Wealth suffers from middle child syndrome. As Greenfield documents everything from wealth and excess to personal legacy and the different definitions of “success,” it’s apparent she is trying to live up to the legacy of her previous work, which makes Generation Wealth perpetually frustrating. Generation Wealth is a documentary with numerous ideas, all tenuously held together by the frightening prognostication that America is on the precipice of a fall not seen since the Roman Empire. Talking heads discuss how America, specifically, has been on the road towards massive economic instability since the ‘70s, with the elimination of the gold standard that’s turned the country from a world of “production” to one of consumption. This led to the excesses of the Reagan-era ‘80s and the ultimate hedonism that we’re seeing in the lead-up to the Trump election. This section, more than anything else in the film’s 106 minutes, is fascinating and should be taken seriously. Greenfield mentions that it is through the excesses of the ultra-wealthy that trends in mainstream consumption are found, and she is a mistress of finding excess. For Greenfield, the project of charting wealth started 25 years ago, during a photographic project that saw her interviewing teens living in ’90s Los Angeles. For the film, she re-interviews the group of teens she spoke to when they were in high school, tracking how their lives have changed despite their privileged upbringings. Some have decided to live off the grid in order to protect their children from the pornification of society; others have never changed, such as three male subjects who still talk about the “racks” of their female classmates and have no problem stopping their car to urge women to “hop in.” Without commenting on it directly, or, in a later segment discussing it through the commodification of female bodies, Greenfield emphasizes that privilege works best if you’re a man. Where the need for specific brands hasn’t changed, Greenfield’s point is that the desire for money has increased to a point where human debasement is now considered normal, and, in some cases, admirable as a means of obtaining more wealth. For Greenfield, her main example of this is the Kardashians, who have now become the new incarnation of the Joneses we must keep up with, no surprise considering their show title. The film examines how it is now television and films, as opposed to our neighbors, who give us indications of what we want and illustrate what the American Dream is. The nature of the shortcut, the quick rise to wealth, is what Greenfield is aiming for. As the owner of the Atlanta strip club Magic City says, “Fake it till you make it.” Audiences are inundated with images that tell them the appearance of wealth, coupled with being famous, creates the idea that money comes easily, and for Greenfield it’s directly responsible for our current President’s rise to the Oval Office. The Queen of Versailles shocked and entertained audiences with colorful, elitist characters. This film takes a more ethnographical approach, interviewing several people and just letting them tell their stories. Some are shocking in their honesty about being greedy, like disgraced hedge fund manager Florian Homm, while other stories are sad. Greenfield spends time interviewing Courtney Roskop at several points in the long-gestating project, first when she was Charlie Sheen’s “girlfriend”-turned-porn-star, and five years later as she struggles to reinvent herself after the infamy. For the director, Roskop is at the center of how wealth results in the dehumanization of women, marking them as property sold into the world of porn and stripper culture. What’s weird is that Greenfield doesn’t go one step further, into the depths of human trafficking. It’s almost as if that subject’s just not excessive and cool enough to discuss. And that’s where Generation Wealth falters. Where it could go further, it doesn’t, and what doesn’t need to be explored in-depth is presented with full force. Nearly half of the film is devoted to Greenfield discussing herself, not just her relationship to the interview subjects assembled, but how her job as a documentarian might have affected her children. This is the section that seems the most tangentially connected to her subject. There is mention made about how we’re losing our traditions, but it comes off as a way to hastily tie things back together. And it fails to jive with the doom-and-gloom set-up wherein America is headed for massive destruction because of our wealth. Wealth and success end up coming off like two separate topics, or at least having two unclear definitions Greenfield herself can’t figure out how to connect. This leaves Generation Wealth sputtering in the middle of the road, introducing a cigar-chomping megalomaniac like Homm only to cut to Greenfield calling her husband to discuss her son’s ACT score. Generation Wealth is a great documentary when it’s actually focused. Instead, Greenfield is crushed by the weight of her topic, which probably could have used some pruning or additional defining. When the horrific excesses of society are examined, it’s a cutting indictment of our love for money. But the whole thing gets lost in homey sentiment about the need for simplicity that plays like a bait and switch.