Interviews

The Photographer Holding Up a Mirror to the Super-Rich

Photographer Lauren Greenfield discusses Generation Wealth, her new documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.

Self-portrait by Lauren Greenfield from <em>Generation Wealth</em> (all photos by Lauren Greenfield, courtesy of Amazon Studios)
Self-portrait by Lauren Greenfield from Generation Wealth (all photos by Lauren Greenfield, courtesy of Amazon Studios)

PARK CITY, Utah — After 25 years of capturing the lifestyles of the incredibly rich, in 2017, photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield released a career retrospective, Generation Wealth, as both a book and traveling exhibition. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, she premiered a documentary companion to the series.

In the film, Greenfield meets with some of her more notable photo subjects — including a onetime aspiring rapper, a Western etiquette instructor for Chinese women, and a woman who at one point was building the largest single-family home in America — to learn how they’ve been affected by either having or desiring so much money. Hyperallergic spoke to Greenfield at Sundance about the film and her photographic approach.

Image from Generation Wealth
Image from Generation Wealth

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Dan Schindel: In what order were the film, exhibition, and book versions of this project conceived?

Lauren Greenfield: The exhibition came first, then the book came and was developed alongside it. The movie came on at a point when I realized there were certain things in the book that I could develop into a more emotional experience through film — it was a way to bring the characters to life. Ultimately, the making of the book and the show, and the subjects seeing themselves [in the show], became part of the movie’s trajectory.

DS: I could identify certain photos in the exhibition from the film locations. How much of it is new material specifically for this series, as opposed to older photos?

LG: Once I decided to make the film, I started shooting for it in about 2015. All of the older videos and footage, you can tell when it’s, like, my DSLR from the old days, like in 2007. I didn’t have a clue I was going to be making this film then. I went back to that archival material, but all the contemporary reunions with the subjects are new, and the material with my own family emerged as I was shooting this. And then there were pieces like going to Russia, China, Magic City [Atlanta], and Vegas, those were also for this movie. They’re in the show, but I was going to those places because I was thinking about this bigger movie. Kind of taking shortcuts to manage my time.

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, <em>Generation Wealth</em> by Lauren Greenfield)
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)

DS: How did you decide which subjects to revisit?

LG: We just started calling different people, my favorite subjects and those with the most interesting stories. I started reaching out and talking about what had happened to them. I ended up going to meet the ones whose stories had unfolded in ways that spoke to Generation Wealth.

There were some who I had read about, like Paris. He was in my early book, and I hadn’t talked to him in years. His dad was a singer for REO Speedwagon [Kevin Cronin], and I read an article about his son’s drug addiction and was like, “Holy shit! This is Paris.” So I reached out to him. With [former adult film actress] Kacey Jordan, it was the same thing. I had a pretty short contact with her when I photographed her for GQ. I read somewhere that she had filed for bankruptcy and tried to commit suicide, and was like, “Whoa, how did this happen?” And then, when I went to film her again, I was so taken with her story that I continued.

Image from Generation Wealth

DS: You make a lot of use of high contrasts and shadows in your photography. What tools and techniques do you use to get that look?

LG: I don’t break it down that technically, so that’s something that I never noticed. What I do try to do is incorporate a little bit of the language and the aesthetic of the popular culture. So for this work I use saturated colors and that tension between what’s on the outside, that shiny surface, and what’s on the inside.

I started at National Geographic, where I used chrome film, and since I moved to digital in 2006, I always try to keep that same kind of color palette and high contrast. Although with digital, I was able to get the colors much more accurate, and I was able to have much more of a range. It’s a little bit of the aesthetic of glossy magazines. A lot of the things that I’m commenting on or even criticizing about desire and products and the objectification of the body, I’m also incorporating. So you see the sexy body, maybe you’re drawn to it, and then you have to think about that.

DS: Including that switch from film to digital, how many cameras have you used over the years? How many do you usually bring on a shoot?

LG: For still photography, I use Canon DSLRs pretty much exclusively. I usually bring two, and sometimes bring a third if I’m also shooting video. I use a pretty small range of lenses. My workhorse is basically the 16-35[mm], and also the 24-70. And I’ll usually bring something longer just in case, but I don’t use it that much.

Image from Generation Wealth
Image from Generation Wealth

DS: You maintain that aesthetic whether your subject is sitting in an office, out in the bright sun, or in a dark nightclub. How do you keep it consistent?

LG: I use fill flash a lot. It’s often turned way down so it blends and feels natural, but I’m almost always putting a little bit of light on the subject, and that makes them pop, but also allows me to expose for both the foreground and the background. So if I’m in a club and it’s really dark, I might be using slow speeds to really bring out the colors of the lights in the background, and then I use the flash to light the subject.

I use that technique a lot. In the club … you can even see in one of the shots in the film, my assistant Keri has what we call the rig, a flash inside of a softbox that’s portable that we carry around, and so we can be very nimble even in a crazy nightclub.

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, <em>Generation Wealth</em> by Lauren Greenfield)
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)

Generation Wealth screens at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, January 27 at 6 pm. Generation Wealth, the exhibition, opens at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo on February 13.

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