Art

Watching Human Dreams Disintegrate in Photos of the Ultra-Rich

Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth, a book and exhibition of the same name at the Annenberg Space for Photography, documents the out-of-control growth of the one percent.

Xue Qiwen, 43, in her Shanghai apartment, decorated with furniture from her favorite brand, Versace, 2005 (© Lauren Greenfield (image from the Annenberg Space for Photography exhibition, Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield)

LOS ANGELES — A Chinese real estate magnate stands in front of his custom-built, to-scale replica of the White House and Mount Rushmore. SoCal teens play hooky lounge in their convertible by the beach. A billionaire’s trophy wife presents her giant mansion for the camera, but she, not the building, is centered in the image.

Lauren Greenfield’s subjects pop from her photographs in an uncanny way. With the use of subtle lighting and framing, she makes their surroundings appear slightly unreal, or perhaps hyperreal, and the people within look shifted to another plane of reality, like they’re photoshopped into their own lives.

Ilona, a photographer and former model originally from Latvia, in the mezzanine library of her home, which so far contains only copies of a self-published book of her fashion photographs, Moscow, 2012. (© Lauren Greenfield (image from the Annenberg Space for Photography exhibition, Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield)

In her 30-plus years as a photographer, Greenfield has primarily focused on self-presentation — others’ self-presentation. Her Bachelor’s thesis at Harvard was about the last remnants of the French aristocracy, and how they clung to aged decorum despite the changing times. Since then, in series like Fast Forward (about Hollywood youth) and THIN (about anorexia), and short films like Beauty CULTure and features like The Queen of Versailles, she has explored the lifestyles of the privileged and how society views and emulates them. Now, the disparate journeys of Greenfield’s oeuvre have been synthesized into a bigger picture with her new photo book, Generation Wealth, and an exhibition of the same name at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Any one of Greenfield’s works is a fascinating grapple with its subject, but in retrospect, she’s been documenting in real time the evolution of celebrity culture, the out-of-control growth of the 1%, and the disintegration of the American dream.

Greenfield does not merely take pictures and leave it up to the viewer to judge her subjects out of context. Every image in the series, most of which were taken in the US, is accompanied by a lengthy caption explaining what’s going on, frequently with a quote by the subject. In aggregate, they tell stories that bring the subjects’ humanity to the fore. Fast Forward contrasts the scions of the wealthy with a kid who saved $600 over two years to have the dream prom experience. Explicitly gory photos of women in the middle of plastic surgery come with footnotes in which the women express the anxieties motivating them to get said surgeries.

Film director and producer Brett Ratner (right), 29, and Russell Simmons, 41, a businessman and cofounder of hip-hop label Def Jam, at L’Iguane restaurant, St. Barts, 1998. Few establishments on the island accepted credit cards, and visitors often carried large amounts of cash. (© Lauren Greenfield (image from the Annenberg Space for Photography exhibition, Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield)

Despite the many tableaus filled with high-end fashion and solid gold embellishments, there’s little sense of reverence or desire for riches. Greenfield turns the gods of capitalism into humans, then places them next to their worshipers. If there’s a diagnosis of society, it’s that dissatisfaction crawls out of the gap between the projection of wealth and its reality. After the economic collapse, she did multiple series about how the wealthy and poor alike were affected, but the subject looms over all her work, both in scenes taken during the “recovery” and in her photographs taken before 2008.

The Annenberg Space is nestled between skyscrapers in Century City, a wealthy business center in LA. There’s no small irony in work interrogating the pursuit of wealth that is only available to whomever is willing to fork over $75 for the book or who can seek out a gallery where parking costs $4.50 for every 12 minutes. But then, it’s mostly the rich who have the luxury to reflect on what riches can’t give you. So Generation Wealth acts as a cold mirror for the shapers of society, plaintively asking them to consider what they’ve done to the masses. The most chilling idea is that, instead of views shifting in the wake of the collapse, 1-percenter ultra-capitalism is spreading at a more virulent rate to the rest of the world. Who knows what kind of photographs we’ll get out of that.

Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield continues at the Annenberg Space for Photography (2000 Avenue of the Stars #10, Los Angeles) through August 13. 

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