Studying the State of the American Dream: Lauren Greenfield at PhotoPlus Expo
By Terry Sullivan
For the better part of 25 years, renowned photographer and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has been studying manifestations of the American Dream by primarily focusing on youth culture, gender, consumerism and the influence of the media. Next year, she will present her documentation in a mammoth 432-page retrospective book, titled Wealth: The Influence of Affluence, published by Phaidon. At the same time, her work will be included in an ambitious museum exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, with a subsequent opening at the International Center of Photography in New York City. This month, Greenfield will present work from Wealth during a special keynote at the 2015 PhotoPlus Expo Conference & Expo.
Greenfield has been exploring similar themes since her first body of work, Fast Forward, which was published in 1997. In that monograph, she examined how Los Angeles youth in the early ‘90s were affected by money, fame and the media. Since that time, Greenfield has gone on to create several other monographs as well as documentary films.
“I’d been looking at consumer culture, and the influence of materialism on values,” Greenfield says. “[Then] I went on other journeys, working on books like Girl Culture and Thin.” But in 2008, when the financial crisis happened, she explains, “I realized that all of my work was connected in a way that I hadn’t understood. And that the crisis in some ways was a morality tale of the work.”
It was a documentary film, not a monograph, that led her to this realization. “I made a movie at that time called The Queen of Versailles, which is about a family who tries to build a 90,000-square-foot house,” she recalls. When completed, it would be one of the largest homes in America, inspired by the French Château of Versailles, which was expanded to its sprawling size in the 17th century by King Louis XIV. “[But] the financial crisis turned this story of this rags-to-riches billionaire’s dream into a morality tale about excess and overreach,” she explains. The Queen of Versailles represents the mistakes made at all levels that led to the financial crisis, she adds, but also serves as an allegory for the bigger, broader story of how we all aspire to wealth. “It’s about how materialism has become part of our everyday culture and part of our identities.”
Around the time she completed the film, Greenfield broadened the scope of her focus. “After the financial crisis, I realized that it was also an international story,” Greenfield says. “I started looking at China and Moscow, and how capitalism and materialism were playing out in communist and post-communist societies.” Although the book focuses on the American Dream, it also includes stories that extend beyond our nation’s borders, to China, India, Ireland and Russia, among other countries, divided into 15 chapters.
“It’s a big, ambitious story. I’m trying to pull together work that I’ve done in a lot of different worlds,” Greenfield explains. She says she scanned 10,000 images from film alone, sifting between those and digital work from 2006 on. There’s a large amount of text to be edited and written, as well, with 230 interviews, captions and an opening essay about her journey.
“[It’s] important to note that the project isn’t just about photography,” she says. “The interviews have always been an important part of the process. And for the museum shows, there are short films and feature films.” The Annenberg Space for Photography is also commissioning a new original film, which will premiere at the exhibition.
One aspect of this project that’s sure to appeal to many photographers and filmmakers is how imaging and audio technology have changed during the span of this project. “It covers a lot of changes in the medium,” Greenfield says. “I started in black and white and then went to chrome film. But in 2006, I went to digital and never went back. Also, I started with audio using a crappy tape recorder, and then went to a better NPR-style recorder. Then, I went from standard-def video to high-def video and went on to shoot in 4K. We’ve just lived through a time of enormous change.”
The timing of Wealth may be significant as well. “This is going to come out in the fall of 2016,” Greenfield says, “as we’re in the midst of most expensive presidential election that we’ve ever seen. So we’re seeing wealth have a huge influence in our political system,” particularly in terms of the important sway the so-called “One Percent” will have on both the election, and more broadly, the culture as a whole.
But the project doesn’t specifically address U.S. elections or the influence of the One Percent on the government. In fact, Greenfield says, it’s not really about having lots of money either. “The book,” she says, “is not about being rich or about wealth. The book is really about how everybody wants to be rich. It’s about our values and about aspiration, which sometimes comes from deprivation, too. It’s not really about having stuff. It’s about wanting stuff.”
PhotoPlus Expo attendees can catch Greenfield’s Canon-sponsored keynote, “Fast Forward to the American Dream,” on Thursday, October 22 from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.