The election of Donald Trump gave a new gloss of legitimacy to the status-seeking, fortune-building ambitions that Lauren Greenfield so astutely documents. If her work felt timely in the ’90s, when she started chronicling our consumerist, image-driven culture, it’s now nothing short of urgent.
Generation Wealth, on view at the Annenberg Space for Photography through August 13, surveys 25 years of Greenfield’s investigations into acquiring and aspiring. The compulsion to become something or someone else higher on the scale of social value – not through Horatio-Alger-style self-betterment, but instead superficial enhancements and Gordon-Gecko-sanctioned greed – is the gristly thread running through her photographs and films
The exhibition itself is overstuffed with ambition, a dense pack of image, text, and sound. It samples generously from among Greenfield’s thematic projects on the amped-up lifestyles of L.A. teens, celebrity worship, the marketing of sex, the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008, the rise of new elite classes in Russia and China, the everyday business of a strip club in Atlanta, and more. Greenfield’s acuity lies in her fusion of social critique and cultural anthropology: what she directs her attention to makes clear what she finds problematic, but she also gives ample room for her subjects to speak for themselves, in text and video interviews. We hear, for instance, high school girls explaining why spending four figures on a handbag is reasonable, and this window into their motivations clarifies Greenfield’s as well.
Through photo-essays and filmed footage, she builds context and fleshes out characters to tell gripping stories of addiction to excess. She is just as adept at delivering the iconic, individual image that distills a disturbing condition with immediately legible visual punch: the six-year-old Toddlers and Tiaras beauty pageant winner seductively running her tongue over baby teeth, for example, or the metal spatula lifting the skin off of a woman’s cheek as she undergoes a facelift. (A concurrent show at Fahey/Klein Gallery through June 10 presents two dozen such searing, stand-alone shots.)
Greenfield applies bracing scrutiny to popular phenomena, using the same tools of documentary practice that have traditionally gone toward humanizing marginalized, deprecated subjects. She allows her subjects their fragile dignity, while making a devastating case against the cultural norms and marketing manipulations that instill in them a pervasive sense of insufficiency. She gets in close, and through intimate details reveals the bigger picture of society’s dehumanizing forces.