If you have lately turned from the headlines and concluded that society is about to implode, the new documentary “Generation Wealth” is here to confirm your worst fears.
This movie is a mosaic of distorted values and conspicuous consumption. I would say it’s like being locked in a room showing a repeated loop of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” episodes, except I’ve never sat through that show, which explains the thin threads of innocence I have left.
The Kardashians turn up in “Generation Wealth,” along with a roster of plastic-surgery fanatics and affluent men whose cigar-smoking evidently replaces some other primal need. I know Freud said “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” but he hadn’t seen this movie.
A few years ago photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield made “The Queen of Versailles,” a study of a grotesque couple building a mega-mansion in Florida. For her new film, she’s widened the scope considerably — and not always to the film’s benefit.
One of Greenfield’s most flamboyant subjects is Florian Homm, a German-born former investment banker, currently avoiding extradition back to the USA. Homm, apparently auditioning to be the next “Mission: Impossible” villain, speaks of his money-grubbing transgressions, knowing how wrong it all was. His amused, articulate observations are worth a movie of their own — and for the record, his relationship to his expensive cigar is that of a drowning man to an oxygen tank.
There’s also a Las Vegas “VIP hostess” (you don’t want to know), as well as a hedge-fund investor, called Suzanne, whose steely gaze never falters. Whether she’s talking about money, the acquisition of art, or her repeated attempts at having a baby, Suzanne remains fiercely committed to closing the deal.
Greenfield also revisits a group of privileged teens she photographed a couple of decades ago. This is one of the most revealing sections of the film: some of the kids went through rough times and came out as thoughtful people, and some are exactly as gross and obnoxious as they were at 17.
A few of Greenfield’s subjects, including a porn star mixed up in the Charlie Sheen-o-verse, steer the film away from its focus on wealth. And in its final half-hour, “Generation Wealth” turns the camera on Greenfield herself, as she questions how devotion to her work has taken a toll on her family life.
These are worthy issues, but Greenfield’s argument widens so far she loses focus. (It might also be a good rule of thumb that when a documentary filmmaker has a strong subject already, it’s a mistake to bring her own story center stage.)
Maybe it’s the title that’s misleading. This film isn’t so much about wealth as it is about shallowness, and a startling lack of character. These folks, so desperate to fill the emptiness, chase an outsized idea of “winning” gleaned from a reality TV or a music video.
When you see Suzanne’s thousand-yard-stare beaming out of her surgically-sculpted face, you see the terrible hunger for something, anything, to fill the void. Greenfield asks her why she’s sacrificing so much for success, and Suzanne briskly answers, “Money.” But that’s not really it. Notwithstanding Cyndi Lauper, money doesn’t change everything.
“Generation Wealth” (2½ stars)
Documentary look at conspicuous consumption in modern America, with lots of examples of the Kardashian style on revolting display. There are some devastating examples here, although director Lauren Greenfield broadens her scope so that the movie isn’t just about wealth but about shallowness, which is going a little too wide.
Rating: R, for language, nudity
Opening Friday: SIFF Cinema Uptown