'Generation Wealth' Review: A Fascinating And Horrifying Examination Of Cultural Excess [Sundance]

"Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment they face death," says one of the talking heads in the opening seconds of Generation Wealth, setting the tone for a documentary that takes a deep dive into the excesses of societies across the globe and surfaces with some disturbing results.

You may recognize Lauren Greenfield as the filmmaker behind the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, which documented a mega-rich Florida family's attempt to construct the largest house in the United States. But that's only one instance of the hundreds of similar cases Greenfield has tackled in her 25-year career as a photographer, and the examination of exorbitance and its effects has been a thematic throughline of nearly all of her work. Generation Wealth essentially serves as a summation and dissection of her entire career as she delves back into the lives of rappers, pageant kids, porn stars, and high-powered finance executives to discover how the American Dream became so mutated.

I missed the 2016 doc Cameraperson, which recounts the life and career of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, but Generation Wealth sounds like it may have a similar vibe. As Greenfield attempts to get to the bottom of looming questions, the documentary is also very much about her trying to find out why she's devoted the past two decades of her life to this topic – sometimes at the expense of her own family. Parallels are drawn between her subjects, who are addicted to money and fame, and Greenfield herself, who comes to grips with the fact that she sometimes pursued her dreams at the expense of spending time with her husband and kids. And as we get to know her family through interviews and behind-the-scenes home movies, the film touches on the universal problem all creative people face: trying to strike the perfect balance between work and family.

Greenfield's personal journey is the beating heart of this movie, but it's the over-the-top characters she interviews that will leave your jaw on the floor. Much of the film is comprised of conversations with former subjects she photographed decades earlier, from an exiled former hedge fund manager who doesn't seem to regret defrauding his clients out of $200 million to the "queen of Las Vegas," a middle-aged VIP hostess who regularly brings her 21-year-old son out to party with her. There are jaunts to China, where someone has built a full-scale replica of the White House with their own Mount Rushmore providing the view out of their version of the Oval Office. There's a woman who charges tens of thousands of dollars to teach etiquette lessons to rich, young foreign women whose parents never taught them how to look sexy for Instagram.

It's tempting to laugh and judge these people, but Greenfield digs under the social media facade and finds that more than anything, there's a deep sadness that permeates these people; unable to ever attain their pre-conceived notions of wealth, they spiral into addictions continually fed by practically every aspect of popular culture.

Tracing the evolution of the American Dream from valuing frugality and hard work to valuing the enticing but fleeting pleasures of fame and fortune, Generation Wealth provides a sobering reflection of society's addictions, elucidates the unwinnable trap of Gordon Gecko's "greed is good" mentality, and illustrates primal truths about the things that truly matter in life. It's a fascinating and often horrifying tour of ravenous indulgence, and will almost certainly be one of the best documentaries of 2018.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10