Once upon a time, in Jewish circles, the manifestations of conspicuous consumption were Cadillacs (for the men) and mink coats or jewelry (for the women).
Nowadays, high school kids drive BMWs and pro athletes wear gold chains on the field, and nobody thinks twice. Acclaimed L.A. photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, who’s been documenting what’s become a global phenomenon for some 25 years, asserts that the pervasive materialism in our culture has had a deleterious effect on our moral values.
In her new film, “Generation Wealth,” Greenfield revisits people she photographed years ago, to glean their perspectives on their youthful excesses as well as to reflect on her own evolution as a person and an artist.
The film “is about how we’ve lost our way and gotten addicted to all of these things that never satisfy because they are trying to fill an emptiness that they can’t fill,” she says.
Like “The Queen of Versailles,” her remarkable and disturbing 2012 portrait of Jackie and David Siegel, an immensely wealthy couple whose goal of building a mammoth mansion was derailed by the financial crash, “Generation Wealth” premiered at Sundance. It opens July 27 in the Bay Area.
Greenfield, an ebullient woman who resides in her California hometown of Venice with her Irish Catholic husband and the two children they’re raising Jewish, spent a portion of her adolescence living in a commune with her counterculture parents.
“I didn’t like it at the time, but I think it did influence me in being a photographer in the sense that I had to negotiate and navigate all of the different personalities who were not part of my family,” Greenfield says. “I had to get along with all these people, people coming in and out, that I didn’t choose. It kind of laid the groundwork for being a little [bit] of a chameleon.”
Greenfield certainly hasn’t morphed into a finger-wagging conservative, but she is concerned that the media and pop culture have provided younger generations with poor role models for life.
One of her best-known photographic projects was “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood,” which portrayed the lifestyles of preteens and teenagers living in the most media-saturated area of the country. She picks up that theme in her new documentary film.
“One of the things I found really disturbing in the ‘Generation Wealth’ journey was a kind of moral neutrality,” she said in an interview in April, when she presented her film at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “The Kim Kardashian effect. There was no stigma at all to having a sex tape catapult you to fame and fortune, and for young people what was really important was the result: the fame and fortune.
“We’ve lost the moral bedrock of right and wrong, or a way to live, or a feeling that you need to contribute in some way to the bigger world. [Instead] it’s the values of narcissism and celebrity and bling and focusing on your own image and turning inward instead of turning outward. It’s not that we have to go back to religious values, but moral values.”
Greenfield doesn’t see this as a uniquely or specifically Jewish problem. While viewers will note the inclusion of a few garish bar mitzvah photos in “Generation Wealth,” those images fade in a globe-hopping panorama that encompasses nouveau riche Chinese and Russians.
“I have always been critical of the materialism within Judaism, and I was very proud that the Jewish Museum in New York bought the series of bar mitzvah photos,” she says. “I think it’s important to be critical of ourselves, and that’s kind of the antidote to the values of corporate capitalism taking over our lives.”
At the same time, Greenfield doesn’t want to feed into stereotypes — a much greater concern for “The Queen of Versailles” than with the new film.
“One of the things that was really exciting was the [photography] show opened in L.A. and the rabbi from our temple [Temple Isaiah in west L.A.] went and he asked me to speak at Yom Kippur,” Greenfield recalls. “I was freaked out about that because he wanted me to show the short film that I had done for the museum that included a hooker talking about her job.”
The rabbi and Greenfield embarked on a conversation how to tie the themes from her work to the themes of Yom Kippur.
“In a way he was educating me, because it’s not really my expertise,” Greenfield says. “He talked about this idea of waking up, and that struck a chord for me and in a way influenced the ending of the movie because I ended up realizing that the hope in the story, as we kind of barrel toward the apocalypse, is that there is a possibility of waking up and having consciousness and seeing more clearly what’s all around us that we are not conscious of.
“In that waking up, there’s a possibility for change.”
“Generation Wealth” opens July 27 at the Clay in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Regency Cinemas 6 in San Rafael, and Aug. 3 at the Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa. (Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, disturbing images and drug material, 107 minutes)