Lauren Greenfield’s exhibition, Generation Wealth, documents the evolving culture of wealth in the United States, and its influence abroad through 25 years of photographic work taking an in-depth look at a variety individuals linked together by an unadulterated pursuit of material objects, beauty, and prestige – aspirational values at the heart of 21st century American culture.
The exhibition features over 200 images, first person narratives, and documentary film footage revealing the absurdity of an increasing influence of affluence in today’s societies as they move away from the values of the Protestant work ethic in the United States or the Cultural Revolution in China, for example. Grounded in the culture of Los Angeles, Greenfield’s hometown, her investigation of the ubiquitous nature of the performance of wealth as a sign of self-worth also includes work shot in Las Vegas, China, Russia, and elsewhere.
Images of little girls dressed as adult women for beauty pageants, bruised women in the midst of plastic surgery sessions or recovery, celebrity culture, flashy businessmen, and teen angst, uncover a complex interconnected web of wealth, false standards of beauty, the sexualization of the female body, consumption, and external appearances. First person narratives in wall text and video reveal deeper psychological currents and motivations for many of the actions in the images on view.
A larger context of class, elitism, and exclusivity is explored on the lower level of the two floor exhibition space, bringing to mind themes found in great works of Western literature like The Great Gatsby. Greenfield’s contemporary context invites viewers to explore social class and appearance as it exists today, across cultures of the wealthy elite; the nouveau riche, or newly-rich; and the working class.
It is important to note that the photographs, shot in Greenfield’s signature style of aggressive, up close and personal flash photography, are inextricably linked to the interviews and conversations included in the project. The more one reads or listens, a walk through of the exhibition can become increasingly shocking, disturbing and obscene. However, more often than not, viewers will probably see a reflection of themselves in the mindset Greenfield boldly unveils. At the very least, the exhibitions is a call to action that asks viewers to examine the changing nature of the American Dream.
Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield is on view at the International Center of Photography through January 7, 2018.