Jackie Goldberg, a.k.a. the Pink Lady, seventy-two, who won Ms. Senior Los Angeles County. She got collagen injections to prepare for the pageant.

Photograph by Lauren Greenfield / INSTITUTE

The binding of Lauren Greenfield’s new book of photography, “Generation Wealth,”
has the color and sheen of a bar of yellow gold. The book has the heft
of bullion, too: at seven pounds, it is too heavy to hold in a single
hand, and too weighty to read unless rested on a lap or table. The size
is demanded by the scope of the work. It consists of five hundred glossy
pages of Greenfield’s photographs from the last quarter century, along
with accompanying text. The images range from portraits of high-school
students and gangbangers in Los Angeles, in the early nineteen-nineties,
to photos of plastic-surgery aficionados undergoing their painful rites
in the mid-two-thousands to pictures of high rollers at Las Vegas casinos
“making it rain,” tossing stacks of dollar bills like confetti to the
glee of those around them. But the book’s design also seems intended to
be ironic commentary on the culture, or subcultures, it seeks to
portray: materialistic, vulgar, excessive, and wasteful. The book would
fit perfectly into the pseudo-rococo decorating scheme of the penthouse
apartment at Trump Tower.

Greenfield may be best known to a general audience not as a photographer
but as a filmmaker. Her 2012 documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,”
which won the directing award at Sundance, tells the story of the
subprime-mortgage crisis through an extraordinary case study: the
efforts of David Siegel, a time-share mogul, to build his dream house, a
ninety-thousand-square-foot mansion inspired by the Palace of
Versailles, in a gated community near Orlando, Florida. At the center of
the film is a cautiously sympathetic portrait of Jackie Siegel, David
Siegel’s third wife, a former beauty-pageant queen and an avatar of
flagrant consumption. Jackie has a closet full of clothes from Chanel,
as well as a taxidermied dog, a former family pet, named for that brand.
Her idea of economic retrenchment, when Siegel’s business appeared to be
on the brink of cratering, is to take her shopping habit to Walmart,
filling a convoy of shopping carts with Christmas gifts. In the context
of the financial crash of 2008, the story of the Siegels serves as an
allegory for the grotesque, overleveraged expenditure of the age.

Jackie Siegel with her twin girls, Jordan and Jacqueline, in front of their private plane. Orlando, 2009.

Photograph by Lauren Greenfield

The Siegels are the subject of a chapter that comes in the middle of
“Generation Wealth,” and the rest of the book shows why Greenfield was
able to so skillfully observe and document their milieu. For decades,
she has had an enduring fascination with the display of wealth—or with
display that is meant to ape that of the wealthy. She grew up mostly in
Southern California, the child of divorced, bohemian parents who lived
in a semi-communal style in Venice. Greenfield enjoyed proximity to but
not direct experience of wealth, American-style, attending a private
school in Santa Monica that was populated, she writes, by the kind of
kids whose lives Bret Easton Ellis chronicled in his début novel, “Less
Than Zero.” (Born in 1966, Greenfield is two years Ellis’s junior.) She also was
exposed to a different perspective on wealth and class at the age of
fourteen, spending a year living in Paris. Placed by an agency with a
family that, while of modest financial resources, was descended from the
French aristocracy, Greenfield was exposed to their pride in ancestral
values. She writes that she came to admire the confidence her host
family took in their lineage, and to emulate the manners they instilled
in their own children, while also remaining aware of less pleasing
currents of social conservatism and reflexive anti-Semitism among
members of their class. She writes, “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.”

Class as refracted through those American values became and has remained
Greenfield’s enduring subject. Her interest, she writes in her
introduction, is not so much with wealth, or with the life styles of the
one per cent, though she gives us an insight into some of their habitats
and habits. In one indelible image, she portrays Marjorie Post Dye, the
granddaughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the founder of General
Foods and the former chatelaine of Mar-a-Lago. Post Dye sits with her
Doberman, Bode, holding a snapshot of the dog taken before he had
corrective surgery to tighten a sagging bottom lip. Canine face-lifts
aside, Greenfield is predominantly concerned with the pervasive
aspiration toward acquisition and display, be it among those with old
money, those with new, or those with next to none. An image of the
orderly walk-in closet belonging to a Toronto socialite, stacked with
dozens of orange Hermès boxes, shares a page with an image of the
bedroom of a sixteen-year-old in Lakewood, California, who goes by the
name Lil Pokeey, and who has his own stacks of orange boxes, from Nike,
containing his extensive collection of sneakers.

Greenfield’s images are often documentary in nature, hers an unobtrusive
but perceptive eye. At the West Hollywood night club Whisky a Go Go, in
1992, she captures a bar-mitzvah party at which a diminutive boy with
rubicund cheeks stares glassily into the cleavage of a go-go dancer who
has been hired to gyrate with partygoers on the threshold of manhood,
while she looks at him with lowered eyes that are half flirtatious, half
maternal. Shots taken at a high-school dance in Bel Air the same year
show a clutch of girls dressed in the uniform of grunge that was au
courant—jeans and lumberjack shirts—but with glossy, well-kempt manes of
hair. Among them we see the pre-famous Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, aged
twelve and thirteen, respectively, the former locking precocious eyes
with the camera. In another of the juxtapositions of which Greenfield is
fond, a few pages away is an image of Enrique, the senior-class
president of Hollywood High, in a chalk-stripe suit and black fedora,
soberly handing over payment for the rental of a limousine, having
worked for two years to earn the six hundred dollars he would spend on
prom night.

Enrique, the Hollywood High School senior-class president, pays for a limousine outside his prom date’s home in South Central Los Angeles, 1993.

Photograph by Lauren Greenfield / INSTITUTE

Greenfield has chronicled some of the country’s most lurid cultural
phenomena, immersing herself in worlds that have either before or after
her visitation been deemed sufficiently sensational to be material for
reality television. Her photographs of child beauty-pageant contestants
would be unsettling even without the monitory ghost of JonBenét Ramsey
looming over the pages. These include images of a pageant mom holding
open a case for her daughter’s “flippers,” the picture-perfect dentures
that she wears over her own still developing teeth. Also featured is
Eden Wood, the six-year-old star of the show “Toddlers & Tiaras,” who
looks like a scaled-down Dolly Parton and is quoted as saying, “My
favorite princess is me.”

The muddled intersection of sex and sexuality with spending power is
explored in Greenfield’s images from Las Vegas. There, she shoots a male
patron of a sports bar called Cheetahs, which supplies scantily clad
dancers alongside its big-screen displays of football. We see the
impassive back of a customer’s head as he surveys both ballplay and
buttocks. But Greenfield also goes to the Moonlite Bunnyranch, a legal brothel
outside Las Vegas, where she photographs Brooke Taylor, who gave up her
twenty-thousand-dollar-a-year job as a case manager for adults with
developmental disabilities to become a sex worker, a far more lucrative
occupation. Taylor is pictured in a blue satin romper, standing in
evening light, against a desolate Nevada landscape. It is all
mountains and dust, with construction vehicles in the middle distance:
an unlovely setting for an unloving transaction. (I, too, spent time as an observer at the Bunnyranch a few years before Greenfield visited; the women were different, but the stories were the same.)

Greenfield’s interest is often in the limits of what can be bought and
sold, and the psychological costs of materialist acquisition. A series
of portraits, taken over a decade, of Suzanne, a successful hedge-fund
executive, first show her at age thirty-seven, a Louis Vuitton purse on
her desk and an Hermès scarf around her neck. She talks about her use of
cosmetic enhancements—she started Botox at twenty-nine—and her embrace
of fertility treatments with her soon-to-be husband. “Money means access
to the best health care without having to worry about it,” she says.
Later images reveal the ways in which even as much money as she has
cannot, in fact, erase worry: an image shows her reclining on her bed,
grimacing through the Botox as her husband injects her in the thigh for
the fifth round of in-vitro fertilization. (Eventually, Suzanne had a
daughter with the help of a surrogate; her husband left six weeks after
the baby came home, and she now employs a live-in nanny, who, Suzanne
says, takes the child to those activities “where there’s no value-add to
me being there.”)

The title of the book, “Generation Wealth,” seems at first to be a
misnomer: Greenfield’s subjects range in age from preschoolers to the
octogenarian Miss Kitty, a South Beach night-club denizen of
eighty-seven who in the early two-thousands regularly hosted a soirée called
Do Your Grandma. (She is pictured lounging with a cocktail, in a white
lace dress, looking like a louche Miss Havisham.) Nor is Greenfield’s
scope limited, as one might expect it would be, to America. She
photographs the effects of foreclosure in the Inland Empire of Southern
California, but also in Iceland and in Ireland, where an emptied-out
estate of newly built thatched cottages looks like a hobbit community
after the plague has struck.

She also chases down efflorescences of wealth—its acquisition and its
decline—across the globe, visiting the construction site of a Beijing
hotel named for, and inspired by, the Château de Maisons-Laffitte.
Hundreds of peasant farmers were displaced to make space for the
building, which makes David Siegel’s folly in Florida look like the
Petit Trianon. The cover image of the book depicts a young Russian
woman, her blonde hair braided in traditional style, wearing a baby-blue
sweater into which the words “I’M A LUXURY” have been knitted, alongside
her equally blonde, sullen daughter, who rides a wheeled, furry pony
through the hallways of their Moscow mansion. The sweater, a helpful
note inside the book explains, is made by the designer Andrey Artyomov,
“whose Walk of Shame fashion line is popular among the wives of
oligarchs.” Greenfield’s subject, a former model and photographer named
Ilona, is the wife of a shipping magnate. As another image shows, the
extensive bookcases in her mezzanine library contain multiple copies of
only one title: her own self-published collection of photographs. As
with many of her other subjects, Greenfield looks with an eye that isnot simplistically censuring but nuanced and sympathetic. In the
interview that accompanies these portraits, Ilona confesses that she
would rather live in a smaller house—that this one feels cold and
impersonal, like a hotel—but that the culture of the Russian nouveaux
riches demands that Muscovites who make money, like her husband, must
display it with private jets, a yacht, and, she notes, “a young and
beautiful wife.” Ilona’s consciousness of herself as a purchasable
luxury consumer good makes the slogan on her sweater seem less brash
than poignant.

Ilona Stolie, a former model and photographer, at home with her daughter in Rublyovka, Moscow, 2012.

Photograph by Lauren Greenfield / INSTITUTE

If the accumulated images in Greenfield’s book do not depict a single
place or generation, they are all concerned with the fact of generation
itself: the perpetual making and lavish expenditure of wealth. Since her
early encounter with the French aristocracy, Greenfield has been asking
herself the same questions in hundreds of different ways. What are the
values of those who have come by their wealth without the restraining
influence of inherited class expectations? And how do they—and their
would-be wealthy emulators—express the fruits of their affluence? And
what value do we, as a culture at large, place upon their
accomplishments? In the pages of Greenfield’s book, no less than in the
votes that propelled our golden-haired President from the gilded
faux-salons of Trump Tower to the White House, we have our answer.

Lauren Greenfield’s exhibition “Generation Wealth” will be on view at the International Center of Photography beginning September 20, 2017.

Sourse: newyorker.com


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