Lauren Greenfield Photographed 25 Years of Rich People in America, Starting with 12-Year-Old Kim Kardashian
A conversation with the photographer-documentarian about the beginning of the end.
Recently, the photographer Lauren Greenfield was going through the half a million photos in her archives when she stopped at a picture of a tween: Back in 1992, she’d captured a 12-year-old Kim Kardashian, an image she’d glossed over at the time. Though Kardashian isn’t the only celebrity Greenfield has photographed over the years—she shot Tupac the year before his death, not to mention Selena Gomez for W in 2010—it’s the nonfamous who’ve always stood out in Greenfield’s work. Those are the subjects she’s largely stuck with ever since turning away from the highlands of Chiapas in Mexico while assignment for National Geographic to the wilderness closer to home—an ecosystem of extreme wealth at her alma mater, the famed private school Crossroads, in Los Angeles. From there, Greenfield has documented the symptoms of materialism, capitalism, and celebrity culture through subjects like an eating disorder clinic and the construction of the country’s largest home during the financial crisis (which led to her award-winning 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles).
Now Greenfield’s 25 years of documentation has been collected into a book and an exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography called Generation Wealth—which she is also in the process of turning into a film. Something of a well-traversed cultural observer at this point, Greenfield opens her book on Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, teenagers in the market for nose jobs, and other unicorns of this particular era of excess.
In the book’s introduction, you say that you’ve sometimes felt that, through your work, you were watching the decline of American civilization. Were there any moments in particular over the last 25 years where that really struck you?
Probably in putting it all together. When you’re in a world, it’s just so exciting to be there, and such a privilege to have that person or community share their story with you. But in putting it all together, it was a dark story, and the scope of it was really overwhelming—we went through a half a million pictures, so it was a puzzle to figure out how the dots connected. It wasn’t like going back and finding the greatest hits with a retrospective, but more feeling there was a narrative running through the stories I’ve been covering for two decades. What was really striking when I started going back through old work with a curator in 2008 was how it ended up feeling like putting together this puzzle of how we got to where we are today, which was validated even more by Trump’s election. When I go back through and really think about the work, I see that he’s not this new surprising chapter, but really the natural evolution of the values in the culture. My work in L.A. in the ‘90s, for example, was about how young people are affected by the culture of materialism, the cult of celebrity, and the importance of image—all things that blew up in our culture, and then also got exported. The big ‘aha’ moment going back to the rich kids in the west side of L.A. was how they were being influenced by MTV and hip hop, and aspiring to be like the kids in the inner city—and then me going to photograph inner city culture and seeing how they were trying to emulate the trappings of wealth. That ended up being a little bit of a case study for what was to happen with all the TV channels, the blow-up of television and cable and then the internet and social media. All of those forces—the homogenization of culture, globalization, branding—kind of brought what I saw with the L.A. kids to people of all ages and people all over the world.
It’s surprising how current some of your early photos feel. There’s one from the ’90s of a girl at Crossroads hiding her Gameboy during a commencement ceremony, just as if she’s secretly texting on an iPhone.
On the one hand, they feel really dated, but on the other, the themes are still so relevant. That picture is from 1992, but it speaks to the way kids now are constantly on their phones, and even adults are constantly distracted by them at the most serious of moments. There were some other discoveries, too. In the early work, in the first chapter, there’s a picture of Kim Kardashian at 12 that wasn’t in my original book, because I didn’t think Kim Kardashian was important at the time. I had completely forgotten about her—I was thinking about her as daughter of the O.J. Simpson lawyer [Robert Kardashian was part of Simpson’s legal team during his 1995 murder trial]. Then, when I went back and realized who it was, I put her in the book because of the rise of reality TV and the significance of Keeping Up with the Kardashians had become so important to the shift in values that I was trying to document.
Have you kept in touch with any of your subjects from over the years?
A lot of people, actually. There are some people I’ve stayed in touch with over the years, and this project was the occasion to reconnect with a lot, too. Like Jay Jones, who was a white-collar criminal who went to jail for Enron-style accounting—I reconnected with him six years after his time in jail, and he’d gone from being very wealthy, building a huge mansion, to being completely broke, living in the guest house of his daughter’s apartment and doing charity work. I think most of the people do understand the bigger picture and what the work’s about—that it’s about our culture, and not criticizing any one person. I really believe almost everyone in the book is making very rational choices, given our culture’s values. Like, in Fast Forward [Greenfield’s book on L.A. youth in the ’90s], there’s a teenaged girl named Lindsey who’s having a nose job, and at the time she gets it, six out of her 10 friends have already had plastic surgery. She was so miserable without it that she’d only sit in one part of class where people couldn’t see her profile. When she had that nose job, it really made her life better. So I’m not condemning the choice of her having a nose job, but I am trying to question the culture that makes an 18-year-old, from the time she’s 12, so self-conscious and so miserable about her nose (and which I actually thought was beautiful).
How did you arrive at the title Generation Wealth?
It just occurred to me last year as I was starting to make a film about the subject, that what we were talking about was a generation. It was 25 years of work, and what I was really trying to get at was a generational shift. When I went back, I realized that a lot of the forces and values I’ve been working with since coming of age and starting out as a photographer had seemed like they’d always been there, but then I started thinking about how they really started with the Reagan ‘80s and its glorification of wealth. It’s this idea that being rich meant you were a good person, like what Bret Easton Ellis kind of tracked starting in the ‘90s, and Oliver Stone got at with Wall Street and the character of Gordon Gekko—that greed is good. He meant it ironically, with Gordon Gekko as an anti-hero, but he inadvertently turned him into a hero for a generation of people, like some of the white-collar criminals of Wall Street that are in the book. It got me thinking that in my parents’ generation, there was a much more idealistic, egalitarian ethos, and money wasn’t considered important in the same way. Or at least there were other kind of more socially responsible values that were part of what it meant to be a good person, too.
The title also refers to this kind of breaking with the values of a past generation, against the backdrop of the great income inequality that we have now. The fact that so much of the wealth is concentrated in so few, and that we no longer have the social mobility that used to define the American dream, and that really defined it in my parents’ generation. And I saw that the research supported that. The ‘70s was actually the time of greatest social mobility; and now, most people don’t feel like real social mobility is in their reach. Bling and brands and this kind of “fake it till you make it” mentality is the only social mobility available for a lot of people.
Do you think that’s all only grown more pronounced in the time you’ve been working?
Yeah. I did a movie called the Queen of Versailles [about the construction of the largest single-family home in the U.S., during the 2008 financial crisis] that really brought together what the crash meant, and was kind of a reality tale for our overreach with the way we’d been living, and our inability to be satisfied with what we had. After the crash, I thought we’d all learned our lessons, but then I went to this club Marquis in Las Vegas, which was the highest-grossing nightclub in America, where people spend $50,000 a night on bottle service. It was like dancing on the deck of the Titanic—live for today, show off as much as you can, whether you have it or whether you don’t. The people who go there are either described as very rich people or what they call the $30,000-a-year millionaires—the people who save all year to be a baller that one night. So that was really powerful to me, especially after then going to Magic City in Atlanta, where people who really had no means were just throwing up all their money. [The rapper] Future talks about how that’s how he made his mark—having nothing, but throwing up his last $500 in the air. He was one of the few lucky ones for whom “fake it till you make it” actually worked. But like gambling, it doesn’t work with most people.
See W’s most popular videos: