The Pursuit of Everything Money Can Buy

Rich, poor, and everyone in between. Lauren Greenfield captures the vague and never-satisfied desire to have more.

People say that if you grow up in LA, you grow up fast. That was true in the '90s when Lauren Greenfield started using her camera to excavate the notion of wealth. There was no better city for such a quest than Los Angeles, an industry town where fitting in has long required a person to look the part. Greenfield pointed her lens at kids, adults, anyone who seemed to want more than they had—which turned out to be everyone. Very few people seemed satisfied.

But the '90s were another time. To think of Los Angeles as uniquely image conscious is now quaint in an era when image is everywhere, all the time when photos of fancy vacations or well-dressed babies can be blasted around the world. Comparing yourself to your neighbours at a time when your neighbours are everyone on earth explains how the neighbourly work of Keeping up with the Joneses morphed into the global aspiration to Keep Up with the Kardashians.

There’s no better explainer than Greenfield of what wealth means in the 21st century and the stress and emptiness that can come from pursuing it. There are signs, too, that the money can bring genuine comfort—the good life: afternoons spent golfing, exotic trips overseas. But true pleasure isn’t top heavy; those at the top are just as prone to dissatisfaction. Having money tends to beget wanting more of it.

If wealth is the story of ambition, then so is Greenfield’s new book, Generation Wealth, which spans three decades of yearning, luxury, and excess. They are, easily, the most seismic three decades of wealth trends, when widening inequality, growing globalisation, and frenetic social media alter people’s perceptions of themselves and their neighbours. Greenfield doesn’t judge the unflattering effects of these changes, but she does question them. In one image of a 12-year-old whose face is recovering from a nose job, Greenfield interrogates not the girl but her circumstance. “I took a critical look at a culture that makes a 12-year-old self-conscious about her looks to the point of financial and physical sacrifice,” she says.

Xue Qiwen, 43, in her apartment decorated with furniture from her favourite brand, Versace. In 1994 Xue started a company that sells industrial cable and has since run four more. She is a member of three golf clubs, each costing approximately $100,000 to join. Shanghai, China, 2005
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

Workers complete construction of the Château Zhang Laffitte hotel, a replica of France’s 17th-century Château de Maisons-Laffitte. The project displaced hundreds of peasant farmers to make way for what will be the centrepiece of a large real-estate development. They can apply for low- wage jobs maintaining the estate. Beijing, China, 2005
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

“Fairy Godmothers-in-Training” transform little girls into princesses at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Walt Disney World. For just under $200 on top of park admission, the boutique’s Castle Package makeover includes hairstyle, nails, makeup, choice of Disney Princess costume, and photos. Orlando, Florida, 2013
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

Jackie Siegel rides ATVs with her friend Mala on Mala’s private estate. Siegel and her family were the subjects of Greenfield's documentary film, Queen of Versailles. Orlando, Florida, 2011
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

Polo, the “sport of kings,” played on sand shipped in for the occasion at SO! Dalian, an exhibition of luxury lifestyle industries held in Dalian, China. Development in this area of the industrial northern city includes a grand, European-style quarter meant to replicate Venice, Italy. Dalian, China, 2014
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

Women buy Givenchy, Ferragamo, Prada, Fendi, and other designer handbags at the annual Bag Lunch, held in a Beverly Hills mansion to benefit underprivileged youth. Beverly Hills, California, 2014
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

Debutantes with partners from the Bolshoi Ballet dance at the Tatler ball, held at the Palace of Unions in Moscow. During the nineteenth century, the aristocracy held balls in the same hall. Today’s ball is an exercise in brand promotion, with sponsorships from Chanel and Maserati. Moscow, Russia, 2014
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

A member of the Siegels’ household staff makes the bed of one of the children. Windermere, Florida 2009
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

Kailia Deliz, 5, receiving her cash award for winning the Ventura County “Summer Fun” Beauty Pageant. The following year Kailia won $10,000 at the Universal Royalty National Pageant, a competition that is featured on the TV show Toddlers and Tiaras. Oxnard, California, 2011
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

Limo Bob in his office. Bob owns a 100-foot limo that made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s longest limousine. Chicago, Illinois, 2008
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

Crenshaw High School girls selected by a magazine to receive “Oscar treatment” for a prom photo shoot take a limo to the event with their dates. The girls were loaned designer gowns and diamond jewellery and had hair and makeup done by stylists who cater to major celebrities. , Culver City, California, 2001
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

lona at home with her daughter, Michelle. Ilona’s sweater was produced for her in a custom colour by her friend Andrey Artyomov, whose Walk of Shame fashion line is popular among the wives of oligarchs. Moscow, Russia, 2012
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

VIP clubbers prepare to make it rain (throw stacks of dollar bills in the air) at the Vanity nightclub. Las Vegas, Nevada, 2010
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

The question, Is there anything that money can’t buy? has always had an obvious answer. Community, health, joy. In Greenfield’s 2012 film, The Queen of Versailles, the billionaire mansion builder David Siegel jokes that being rich doesn’t make you happy, it just lets you be unhappy in a better part of town.

But there is evidence humans can change, that the pursuit of wealth has a limit. After the financial crash of 2008, Greenfield observed how Iceland, a country whose stilted banking sector was reduced to ashes, stopped trying to be what it wasn’t. Icelanders returned to their native industries—fishing and textiles—under the belief that a culture comfortable with its normal self might attract tourists (and it did).

Whether America has the same capacity to change, to alter how it views success, is a question for economists. But the answer is probably not. A culture and an economy built on growth don't leave much room for contentment. There's always something more to be had.

Header Image: Christina, 21, a Walmart pharmacy technician, en route to her wedding in Cinderella’s glass coach, drawn by six miniature white ponies and with bewigged coachman. Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 2013 PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, INSTITUTE

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