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Lauren Greenfield’s Materialist World

Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has been exploring the pursuit of wealth and its trappings since the 1990s, when she photographed privileged, pampered teens in Southern California. Her new book, Lauren Greenfield: Generation Wealth, published by Phaidon, presents more than 650 of her photos from the past 25 years and 150 first-person interviews. The book’s publication is timed to coincide with a traveling exhibition, “Generation Wealth,” that opened at the Annenberg Space for Photography last month and is on view until August 13. Greenfield’s documentary film of the same title will be released later this year by Amazon Studios. Together they present a global portrait of materialism and beg the question: Why do we want all this stuff?

The book and exhibition look at Russian oligarchs, China’s newly rich and moguls in Monaco. But Greenfield is not only concerned with the 1 percent who control most of the world’s wealth. “This work is about the aspiration for wealth and how that has become a driving force—and at the same time an increasingly unrealistic goal—for individuals from all classes of society,” she says in a statement. Greenfield is interested in all the ways people define success, and the steps people are willing to take to transform themselves to fit an image of wealth or power. She shows a party of young African American men drinking champagne and waving a wad of bills. She visits a hospital in Brazil where young women undergo cosmetic surgery. In Moscow, she photographed a child on an expensive rocking horse next to her mother, whose sweater reads, “I’m a luxury.”

Greenfield’s saturated colors and poppy lighting heighten everything in the frame. Every gold fixture looks particularly garish, and every subject looks like he or she is stepping into the spotlight. Her lighting also elevates the showiness of each display of luxury. Even in the privacy of someone’s extravagantly furnished bedroom, there’s a sense that this is all for show, and that the glittery façade is as thin as gold leaf. In a statement about the “Generation Wealth” exhibition, Wallis Annenberg, Chairman of the Board, President and CEO of the Annenberg Foundation, describes Greenfield as “an ironist and a keen humorist.” The irony is softened by the intimacy of the interviews in which the subjects describe their dreams and, in some cases, their disappointments. The book includes an introduction by economist and sociologist Juliet Schor.

Lauren Greenfield: Generation Wealth is being published as we are bombarded with news about a leader who built his brand on luxury hotels, golf courses and bankrupt casinos. There’s a risk that the book’s intended audience has been sated with displays of gaudy excess. But the public might be eager for a critical examination of the pursuit of material wealth and the hollowness that acquisitions are meant to fill. —Holly Stuart Hughes

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