Generation Wealth is the fruition of a twenty-five-year documentary inquiry into what I have called “the influence of affluence.” Consciously at times—and at other times unconsciously—I have captured signs of a seismic shift in our culture. I began to recognize the pattern in 2008, during the financial crisis, and I have been trying to decipher it ever since, both by making new work for this project and by editing the photographs I’ve made throughout my career.
The title of the project and many of the pictures could mislead the reader to think that this is a work about the 1 percent, about people who are wealthy. It is not. This work is about the aspiration for wealth and how that has become a driving force—and at the same time an increasingly unrealistic goal—for individuals from all classes of society. We have less social mobility now than we had in prior generations, and, more than ever before, a greater concentration of wealth is in the hands of the few. Flouting this reality, the “American Dream” has grown to outsized proportions. “People don’t dream in modest terms anymore. They all want to live in Mar-a-Lago with Donald Trump,” says social critic Chris Hedges, whom I interviewed for this book and companion film. As our political system becomes less democratic—with wealthy donors and well-funded special-interest lobby groups exercising disproportionate influence on elections and legislation—we have experienced a democratization of the signifiers of wealth. Luxury for the common man, woman, and child defines the new American Dream. And if you don’t have money, as Emanuel, one of my teenage subjects in Los Angeles, assures us, “There are ways to make it seem like you do.” The aptly named rapper Future explains that the strategy is to “fake it till you make it.” This sentiment is echoed by many of my subjects who seek material-based status, from Minnesota to Milan, South Central Los Angeles to Shanghai, Dubai to Moscow. As Hedges attests, fictitious representations of a luxury lifestyle have replaced actual social mobility. The fact that many of the images in this book appear to be of worlds of wealth and belie their reality is precisely the point for both the subjects and for the image-maker (me) in an image-based culture.
As a photographer and filmmaker, and in a variety of media, from analog to digital, I have been asking questions about the culture of materialism, the cult of celebrity, and presentation-based status since my first major project, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, which I began in 1992 and published as my first book in 1997. That work explored those themes in the context of youth culture in Los Angeles and was inspired by my own high-school experience. At the time, I was struck by the early loss of innocence in our media-saturated culture, taking stock of a generation impacted by what I called “the values of Hollywood.” In that early work, I documented the excesses of the affluent, the attraction of what we now term “bling” among the poor, and the desire for fame and status-based image across boundaries of class, race, and neighborhood. What started to emerge in front of my camera was the dramatic influence of commercial pressures on young people’s values and behavior, as well as an unexpected homogenization of youth culture resulting from the shared consumption of increasingly ubiquitous media messages. I remember saying on the radio, while discussing my Fast Forward book, that despite the dramatic divisions in the city revealed by the L.A. riots, which I had covered in 1992, rich kids and poor kids had found common ground that their parents had not, and it was a shared love for Versace.
During the global financial crisis of 2008, I documented uncannily similar imagery and phenomena across the United States and around the world, from California to Florida, and in Dubai, Ireland, and Iceland. I realized that many of the stories I had photographed and filmed since the early nineties were part of a larger narrative. The international and catastrophic nature of the 2008 crisis revealed a meta-story connecting the hundreds of stories I had covered and forming a morality tale in which we were all implicated. Once again, irrespective of class, race, age, and nationality, individuals—and by extension entire countries—made the same mistakes and suffered similar consequences. They held in common their human nature, a diet of mass media, and their participation in an interconnected global financial system. In the end what was shared was more powerful than cultural and historical differences; traditional institutions of family, religion, and government; even, in the case of Iceland, geographic isolation that in prior times might have insulated against the forces that affected them all during the crash. The repetitions and echoes—both visually apparent and underlying—in radically different contexts made me realize that I was unearthing a pattern with more far-reaching significance than the individual stories revealed.
In 2007 I met Jackie Siegel at a party at the Versace boutique in Beverly Hills hosted by Donatella Versace, whom I was photographing for Elle. At that time, Jackie, the wife of time-share billionaire David Siegel, was spending more than $1 million a year on shopping. I made a photograph of Jackie and two of her friends holding Versace handbags that Time magazine published in its 2007 “Pictures of the Year” issue as representative of the “new Gilded Age.” (That photograph is on the back cover of this book.) Eventually, I began to film Jackie and David in their ambitious quest to build the biggest house in America, near Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, for what became the documentary film The Queen of Versailles. I was interested in the over-the-top consumerism that was the expression of their personal narratives of success. They both had come a long way from their modest origins—David as a TV repairman, and Jackie as an IBM employee turned beauty pageant winner who realized her looks were a better tool for upward mobility than her degree in engineering. Their rags-to-riches story was articulated with striking references to self-anointed royalty—he the “Time-share King,” she the beauty queen—in a portrait that hung in their home (p. 317). It was one of many indications the Siegels displayed of the scale and ambition of the new American Dream.
On their Seagull Island estate, I was equally captivated by the small army of immigrant nannies and housekeepers in the Siegel household, with their own compelling American Dream stories. In some cases they had made huge personal sacrifices in a Faustian bargain to win a better economic life. In unexpected, ironic parallels, billionaire David Siegel and his Filipina nanny Virginia were unable to spend time with their children because of their desire to make a better life, which for both was expressed by the building of a house that would impress their respective communities—his, the entire nation; hers, a small town in the Philippines. David and Jackie’s dream of upscaling from a 26,000-square-foot mansion to a 90,000-square-foot palace, inspired by the seventeenth-century Château de Versailles in France, was a window into the addictive nature of consumerism. Facilitating the same cycle of addiction in his business, David makes his money by selling dreams of luxury vacations to his time-share customers, largely people of modest means whom his son Richard describes as “the Walmart customer, the Johnny Lunch Bucket.” David asserts, “Everyone wants to be rich. If they can’t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich—and if they don’t want to feel rich, then they’re probably dead.” He is proved right by the appetite for his product. Similarly, David uses real estate Donald Trump–style to demonstrate success with “mine is bigger than yours” skyscrapers that brandish his company name as prominently as possible. In The Queen of Versailles, David bragged that the sign on his new flagship building on the Las Vegas Strip—the tallest time-share in the world—was brighter than the sign on Trump’s building nearby and that Trump had complained to him about it.
Because David believed in leveraging to the hilt, during the 2008 crisis the as-yet-unfinished Versailles and his proudest achievement, the $600-million time-share tower in Las Vegas, ended up in foreclosure. In the context of my work, Siegel’s story became an allegory about our insatiable consumer appetites and the consequences of overreach. The bigger story was more than an economic one, however, and didn’t start or end with the crash. The international financial crisis was a time of reckoning that laid bare the human and institutional forces at work. It was a teachable moment—though history has shown that what we learned may not be remembered far beyond the period of our suffering. The crash for me marked a creative disruption that revealed the way our values had changed, how the American Dream had evolved, and how far we had moved toward an unsustainable future, economically, environmentally, and spiritually. We had lost our moral compass and were partying on the deck of the Titanic with reckless abandon. The crash provided a moment of sobriety and lucidity that has since been succeeded by an even more frenetic and licentious dance that, as Hedges explains, is consistent with the end of empire.
In this work, I have tried to examine how we, as Americans, have gone from a traditional ethos, underpinned by Judeo-Christian values, of modesty, thrift, humility, and discretion; of “you can’t take it with you”; of helping others less fortunate, to a culture of bling, celebrity, and narcissism. We now live in a society in which 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. He won votes by talking about how great he is and promising to do for America what he has done for himself. Along the way, I have also tried to understand how a woman who launched her career with a sex tape can become a major celebrity admired by children around the world, and how there can be waiting lists to buy a Birkin bag, a handbag that can cost up to $300,000. Why is this handbag a known quantity to people as diverse as teenagers in Los Angeles, a CEO in China, a psychologist in New York, a socialite in Toronto, and a party official in Moscow? Generation Wealth is not about Trump, Kim Kardashian, or the Hermès Birkin bag, but it is 13 12 Introduction an examination of the culture that has made all three possible and how we Americans have effectively exported it around the world.
I have been compiling Generation Wealth for the last eight years from work made over the past three decades, editing more than half a million pictures with the help of curator Trudy Wilner Stack, making more than fifty thousand new ones, and conducting over five hundred interviews. Since this is clearly obsessive behavior on my part, and a subject of this work is addiction, I will disclose some of my own background to shed light on my passion for the subject matter. My dad grew up without money, and my mom grew up with lots of it, but both rejected its importance. When I was young, my parents genuinely didn’t seem to care about the creature comforts that have become so important in our time. My mom used to say that such caring “skips a generation” and that I always liked the “fancy things,” but I think what I actually yearned for was the security and sense of identity that I believed those things represented. My parents separated when I was six years old and moved from Boston to California, my mother to Santa Cruz and my father to Los Angeles. Influenced by the egalitarian values of the sixties, they rejected their own conventional suburban upbringings in New Jersey and Ohio and started two different communes, where, as single parents, they could more easily bring up my brother, Matthew, and me. When they each moved to the seaside Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice in the mid-seventies, it was a community that creatively constructed families like ours shared with drug dealers, artists, hippies, the homeless, and street gangs.
My mother repudiated the bourgeois lifestyle of her parents, which centered around socializing and playing golf at the country club. She says she felt abandoned by her mother and father, who left the hands-on task of child-rearing to “the help”—a cook/housekeeper and a butler. She wanted to be a different kind of mom to us, and that was partly her motivation for choosing communal living. Having friends to look after us aligned with her “it takes a village” ideology. Later, though, when she became involved in the women’s movement and while navigating her commitment to a major academic career, she decided that we should live with my dad and fly up to see her every other weekend in Santa Cruz. This arrangement, which lasted for two years, meant that we often took the plane as unaccompanied minors and contributed to my youthful disenchantment with an unconventional upbringing (but got me accustomed to travel at an early age).
My mom eventually decided the flying back and forth wasn’t good for us kids and moved to the same block in Venice as my dad, allowing them both to be “full-time parents,” even though they eventually divorced and my dad remarried. Living in close proximity to both parents was a huge gift to my brother and me, but the positive memories of the strong relationships we shared and the unconditional support I had from them are mixed with more difficult memories of the turbulence of divorce, of moving back and forth between two houses—which always remained more their own domains than ours—and of the regular break-ins that occurred, not to mention the stressful occasions when my mom was arrested during protests against local real-estate development (gentrification).
At the age of fourteen, eager to experience something different and inspired by my Francophile and elegant maternal grandmother, I jumped at the opportunity to move to France when my mother took a sabbatical in Paris. After three months, when we were scheduled to return home, I decided to stay on for the school year. Through an organization that placed students with French families, my mother found a host family for me who happened to belong to one of France’s old aristocratic families. The father had a modestly paid job in the military, and the family took in student boarders to supplement their income. In their Paris apartment, I found a second home. I loved their pride in their lineage and their comfort “in their own skin,” their sense of the importance of family and community, and the unexpected way their status within an elite class was not dependent on the vicissitudes of financial fortune. The aristocrats knew what their values were and successfully taught their children how to act, what to do and not to do, and whom to marry. Among the “old” families of France—an “old family” being a common euphemism for aristos—there didn’t seem to be any adolescent loneliness and anomie. In L.A., not only were kids expected to rebel, but many of their parents, my own included, were still rebelling. It was comforting to be like these French kids—not to have to think about whether to do drugs, whether to have sex, and whether to do what your parents told you to do (if they even set rules). I quickly assimilated, learning to speak like my French peers, to have proper table manners, and to act “bien élevée.” Occasionally, though, I would hear an anti-Semitic remark, not from my host family but from a member of their circle, and that would wake me up to the differences between us and remind me that, while I felt close to them personally, the elitism and conformity of their cloistered world was incompatible with the values I had grown up with, which prized diversity, social mobility, and democracy.
By the time I moved back to Venice for eleventh grade, I was sensitized to issues of class, money, and status. I began attending Crossroads, a private school in Santa Monica, where many students’ parents worked in the entertainment business. When I interviewed my dad recently, he told me that he saw it as a privilege for me to be able to experience two worlds—shuttling between my home in Venice and a well-heeled private-school environment. But he also recognized that it was hard for a kid not to have a lifestyle like her friends had, and not to have the clothes and the cars that were the requirements of belonging among my classmates. One of my friends wasn’t allowed to have a sleepover at my house because we lived in a “dangerous neighborhood.” Once, when I slept at her house, her mother threw away a beloved pair of shoes I had bought in Paris because they looked so worn. My dad tells a story of driving me to school in his “narc” car (a secondhand police car) and my asking to be dropped off a block away to prevent embarrassment.
This was the west side of L.A. during the eighties, the time and place that Bret Easton Ellis so vividly captures in his 1985 novel Less than Zero, about the drugged-up decadence of alienated young people who wander the city without supervision or direction. In my private-school world, my peers had money, independence, and exclusive access—things like tickets to movie premieres and backstage passes at rock concerts. Los Angeles is a city where, maybe more than anywhere else in the world, class is defined strictly by money. I remember reading Madame Bovary for eleventh-grade English and my classmates not understanding how the woman who mended the linen at Bovary’s school could be from a higher social class than the students. My dad recalls a Crossroads PTA meeting at which another father asked him what he did for a living. When he said that he was a professor of medicine, the man replied, “That’s too bad—you must not make much money,” and walked away.
Though I had everything I needed and was privileged when it came to education, travel, and cultural exposure, I felt lacking by comparison with my peers. Ellis went to Buckley, another private school, where he told me he had a similar experience. When I interviewed him recently, he said, “Looking back, we had a nice, upper-middle-class lifestyle. But all my friends lived in this kind of fantasy world of elaborate houses, with their own horses, ice-cream machines and whatever at birthday parties, tickets to Rams games, huge bar mitzvahs at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was jealous of the fact that my friends had this lifestyle that I did not have, which is sick to a degree. I’ve talked to a lot of other people who grew up well-to-do in Los Angeles but who, when put into this world of L.A. wealth, felt that they didn’t live up to it.” My mother still insists it was a mistake not to give me a car when I was sixteen, because it made me a social pariah. But my stepmother, Sherrie, jokes that it worked out in the end, because I “made a career out of it.” In retrospect, I do think these childhood struggles navigating various social worlds helped develop an insider/outsider perspective that has always informed my photography and filmmaking, a point of view where empathy and my own sporadic urges of material aspiration coexist alongside social criticism.
I didn’t realize until I started working on this book and film that the period in which I came of age and started taking pictures was the beginning of a new era in terms of our relationship to money and wealth. As Hedges notes in the pages that follow, the Harvard historian Charles Maier posits that the seventies was a turning point, when America began a transformation from an empire of production to one of consumption. Ellis said, “The values of the Reagan eighties really placed this emphasis on wealth and, to a degree, celebrity—the idea that you were better off driving a BMW and looking super hot.” In what seems fitting now, my first self-assigned subject in my Photo 1 course in college was a 1984 Republican rally, when Reagan was running for reelection (p. 491). Florian Homm, the former hedge fund manager accused of fraud (whom I met when we were both at Harvard), remembers, “During the Reagan period, the value system changed completely: it wasn’t about who you are, but about what you are worth. . . . Morals are completely nonproductive in that value system.” The character of Gordon Gekko embodies that sentiment when he introduces us to the idea that greed could be “good” in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. Stone intended the corporate raider to be portrayed as a villain, but many Wall Street players idolized him, including Homm and the real-life “Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort, both of whom spent time in jail accused of financial crimes (and are included in this book). Stone told me that the worship of money grew enormous in the eighties and that he was surprised to see the next generation take it much, much further.
In 1987 I took a course at Harvard, The Photograph as Social Description, taught by the photographer and curator Barbara Norfleet. She had just published a book, All the Right People, about the world of American old-money society. Her work, and the revelation that photography could function as sociology, inspired me to shoot my first documentary project. I returned to France to photograph what was left of the French aristocracy, going back to the milieu I had inhabited at age fourteen and gaining access through the mother of my French family, to whom I remained close. I adopted Norfleet’s technique of interviewing subjects, a part of my methodology that has remained consistent, even as my practice has transformed the process from recording on audio tape to the high-resolution 4K video I use today. I was also influenced by Norfleet’s insight that little documentary photography existed of the upper classes, who historically had been careful to control uses of their image. Documentary photographers tended to shoot “down,” gravitating toward the easier access afforded by the street, as well as toward the pressing social issues of the third world. In Norfleet’s work as photo historian and curator of the Harvard photography archive, she found that pictures of the wealthy were limited to commissioned portraits and the occasional society photo. As she reminded me when I interviewed her recently, the old-money WASPs believed one should be in the newspaper only three times in a lifetime—birth, marriage, and death—in stark contrast to many of my fame-seeking subjects. In compiling this project, I have often thought about Norfleet’s lessons, as I’ve considered how the shift in our relationship to fame is part of the story of contemporary wealth, as well as the importance of penetrating the barriers to documentary access in the rarefied worlds of the upper class, particularly as it grows in influence.
Nevertheless, like so many other photographers, I began my professional career by shooting “the exotic” in the third world. After an internship at National Geographic, I got my first assignment at the magazine: my mother had been doing cross-cultural psychology in a Zinacantec Maya village in Mexico where National Geographic had never been able to get permission to photograph, and we proposed to document its people—she as the writer and I as the photographer. But while I was in the highlands of Chiapas, struggling with access in a culture that I little understood, I realized that I wanted to examine a subject that I knew well and that was closer to my heart—the world I grew up in and, specifically, the world of high school, of which I had ambivalent memories. I wanted to study a culture that would allow me to bring my own experience to my perspective.
I returned to L.A. and embedded myself at my alma mater, Crossroads, hanging around the alley that bisected the campus and served as the student parking lot and central hangout place (appropriately, often in cars). One day while I was photographing, three boys asked what I was doing. When I told them I was photographing “growing up in L.A,” they said, in that case, I had to “show money. That’s what it’s all about.” They pulled bills out of their pockets, and I shot the boys holding them up. It wasn’t until I developed the film and looked at the images with a loupe that I saw that these thirteen-year-olds were waving $100 bills. In my first interview for the project, another thirteen-year-old, named Adam, confided that “money ruins kids. Money has ruined me.”
Many of the trends and phenomena that kids like Adam helped me understand in L.A. have exploded and expanded across the globe since the mid-nineties. We have seen the proliferation of TV channels and the advent of the Internet and social media. Globalism and mass connectivity have exported the values of materialism, celebrity culture, and the importance of image to every corner of the globe. Many kids interviewed talk about wanting to be rich and famous before any other goal. Social media enables people to brand and promote themselves from an early age and to endorse products. Not only can everyone be famous today—via social media and the rise of reality TV—but celebrities have become more and more a part of our everyday lives. Ellis observed that “L.A. kids were the first to have this intimate access to the movie business—how it works, who its stars were. . . . That narcissism that is so full-blown in the culture now was just beginning to rear its head in that moment in L.A. . . . before it spread out everywhere.” In today’s world, where we take for granted access to celebrity-like lifestyles, where the Kardashian offspring are household names, and where taking an Uber allows teens to have their own “limo” at the touch of their smartphones, it is hard to remember why readers were shocked by my picture of two girls eating pizza in the back of a limousine on the way to a rock concert when it was first published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1992 (p. 21).
My subsequent multiyear work on the way girls’ bodies become all-consuming projects for themselves and for the beauty industry also constitutes a case study in the context of the Generation Wealth project. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (paraphrasing Betty Friedan) explains insecurity marketing: “Why is it never said that the really crucial function that women serve as aspiring beauties is to buy more things for the body? . . . Someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring ‘beauties.’” In this work, I am interested in the psychology that fuels our desire to acquire, the striving to be other than we are. Extending beyond girls’ body-image insecurities, the striving applies to the old in a society that worships youth, the poor amid the glorification of wealth, the middle class in a world of excess, ethnic minorities who want to assimilate, even citizens of Russia and China, where we see the enormous appeal of achieving status through luxury brands against the backdrop of the Communist societies that once attempted to level class distinctions.
Research shows that the more we watch TV, the more we imagine others have more than they actually do. And the economist Juliet Schor tells us that unlike in the old days, when we compared ourselves to the family down the road that was a little more successful, we now compare ourselves to the celebrities with whom we spend more time than our actual neighbors. Like the children of L.A.’s rich, whose parents enabled them to live out media-influenced fantasies, such as driving fancy cars or having a party with a Madonna impersonator or a go-go dancer, the era of cheap money that led to the 2008 crash enabled many to use credit to realize their dreams of living like the celebrities.
Lil Magic, general manager of Magic City, the legendary strip club in Atlanta, observes that people can’t tell the difference between entertainment and reality anymore. He says that people don’t value hard work but instead want easy money. The rap promoter Kingpin goes on to postulate that in our parents’ generations, people valued education, but that for the youth of today, “Status is the new ‘Dr.’ in front of your name. . . . They wanna be the freshest, the flyest, the coolest.” President Obama, in the late stage of the 2016 presidential campaign, compared the election to reality TV. And, of course, now a flashy reality-TV star—the apotheosis of Generation Wealth—has been elected as the leader of the free world. Life imitates art, and we struggle to discern the difference.
Though this journey has at times felt like watching the decline of Western civilization, I hope it can serve as cautionary tale as well as sociological document. Amid the darkness, there are glimpses of hope: in Iceland’s response to the 2008 crash and the real social change its citizens made following the crisis; in Florian Homm’s finding the meaning of life after losing his wealth; in the spendthrift Kathy’s discovering the beauty and peace of living by the sea—her lifelong “favorite thing”—even though it took becoming homeless for her to experience it. And in knowledge gained: David Siegel admits at the end of The Queen of Versailles that he regretted building so many resorts and says that “it’s a vicious cycle.” He adds, “No one is without guilt.”
Then there’s the mantra repeated by so many—the realization that family and community are more important than money. Homm tells us, “What you’re sold in this world is a bag of rotten goods. The striving for more and bigger will never, ever lead you to the right place. All of us are following a dream, a toxic dream. It’s not going to fulfill us. It isn’t as important as relationships, as love.”
Despite the wisdom of Homm’s words, when I interviewed his son, he felt unsure whether his father had really changed or if his new philosophy was a temporary reaction to hard luck. Have any of us really changed? Many of the financial insiders I met have predicted another painful bust, because we haven’t made the reforms we need to make. And, like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, David Siegel is back to constructing his palace of Versailles, which he saved from foreclosure when business got better.
Still, even Siegel admits that money doesn’t make you happy. It just makes you “unhappy in a good section of town.” The subjects in these photographs and interviews are the truth tellers. I am grateful for their candor, their perspectives, and their generosity in allowing me into their lives and trusting me to tell their stories. Their interviews represent their subjective points of view, just as the photographs represent mine, and both should be understood as such. What I learned from many of them is that chasing wealth is unending and ultimately unsatisfying. As the former Wall Street trader Sam Polk recognizes, it’s an addiction like any other, and the more you have, the more you want and the more you think you need. Shelley, one of the eating-disorder patients from my film THIN, told me she thought that my addiction was my work. My mom recently said that she thought one of the failures of the women’s movement was that, instead of ensuring that men are home more with kids, it has helped give us a world where both parents are working all the time. We then argued about whether she or I was the bigger workaholic. Homm refers to his work addiction as a diamond-studded hamster wheel. Once again, I find myself an insider/outsider who is not immune to the trends I document. And as I run faster and faster toward the finish line of this project, I promise myself I will spend more time with my children when it is done.