We seem to be talking about the American dream a lot these days. And not just how to get it, but what is it, exactly? When the Framers of the Constitution set down those three unalienable rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—they could easily define the first two, but what of the third? Trying to achieve happiness is like trying to hit a moving target: it can be done, and some people are better than others, but everyone is going to miss some of the time.

That might begin to explain why the American dream has undergone a seismic shift in the past half-century: rather than search for a needle in a haystack, why not just buy the whole damn stack? And maybe the two right next to it, just in case. If some money brings about some happiness, wouldn’t it follow that a lot of money brings a lot of happiness? Not really, but try telling that to the kids who grew up in the wealthy towns of ’80s/’90s West Los Angeles—kids living out their lives as if Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero was a guidebook. Live fast, die young, buy Coca-Cola.

Live fast they did, but die young they did not. Some ended up in jail, many hit bottom, and most seem to be living out their second acts in atonement; or, at the very least, misery.

What does all this have to do with Generation Wealth, the 2018 documentary from photographer Lauren Greenfield? They’re tangential, admittedly, but they seem to be on Greenfield’s mind as the subject of some of her photographs. Most documentaries hold your hands and walk you through the spaces between the frames; really good ones let you find your way out by yourself.

Told in a straightforward manner, Generation Wealth documents several of Greenfield’s subjects from the past 25 years. All are obsessed with wealth and fame, from a disgraced hedge fund manager to a porn star who specializes in appearing underage; from a nine-year-old pageant princess to a single mother who put her plastic surgery on credit cards and lost custody of her child and now sleeps in her car. There is no end to the lessons and warning signs one might glean from Greenfield’s photography, but no one is heeding them. Why?

Sapiens—2018’s book du jour and a perfect companion to Generation Wealth—has a few theories. Author Yuval Noah Harari points out that while many profess belief in Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, they often come up short in practice. Not so when it comes to capitalism. Why, just about every American man, woman, and child in modern society is an exceptional capitalist. And it doesn’t look like they are going to slow down any time soon.

Generation Wealth is not a great documentary, but it is a damn good one and well worth your time, if for no reason other than you’ll leave it much more critical of the wealth and happiness you see around you. It’s turtles all the way down, and they’re standing on nothing.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Generation Wealth (2018)
Written and directed by Lauren Greenfield
Produced by Wallis Annenberg, Frank Evers, Lauren Greenfield
Amazon Studios, Rated R, Running time 105, Premiered Jan. 18, 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 1, “Keeping up with the Joneses?