September 19th, 2017
You Can Never Be Too Rich
In Lauren Greenfield’s chronicle of American wealth, the desire for status is insatiable.
By Nancy Isenberg
What is class? Is it something we can graft onto our bodies through plastic surgery? Is it every commodity, big or small, luxurious or cheap, that we buy, and that comes to symbolize us? Is it the desperate need to impersonate those who seem to have more things and more fame than we possess? Is it about power?
In Generation Wealth (2017), Lauren Greenfield’s brilliant photographic journey through the labyrinth of American class presumption in the present century, the reader/observer is overcome by the sheer weight of hollowness. Yes, the paradox is intentional. The book traces its serial themes from shopping to the cult of celebrity to dynastic comfort, a world where money is everything. Even a twelve-year-old girl in Los Angeles gives evidence of an obsession with every tawdry cliché: “But I want the world; I want designer clothes; I want eternal happiness, the fountain of youth. . . . I want the best of everything.” I want, I want.
In her introduction, Greenfield emphasizes the unnerving appeal of reckless abandon. Look around. It is pervasive. As we become a more unequal and less democratic society, Greenfield writes, “we have experienced a democratization of the signifiers of wealth.” The new American Dream, the ultimate goal for every man, woman, and child, is to achieve an ever more lavish lifestyle, or at least the illusion of one.
The watchwords of this mesmerizing book are crave, commodify, and consume. The people we meet in this book are material girls, toddler beauty-pageant stars, Disney World royalty, Botox babes, anorexic models, amateur pole dancers, and professional strippers. Women and pets are treated comparably—as accessories to wealth. Even a sad-faced Imelda Marcos. The images reflect the self-hatred that grows from the experience of spiritual prostitution. Sexual exploitation is pivotal in the book’s depiction of class, with the underlying message that women are the unconscious (and some conscious) mascots of a cruel system; they represent rapacious desire and property meant for display. And meant to be controlled.
Annika, the aforementioned twelve-year-old, eagerly exploits her mother. She tries to extract all she can from her: “I sometimes feel angry,” says the mother, “because I feel like her goal is to get as much out of me as she possibly can, without any regret.” Jackie is the third wife of timeshare mogul David Siegel. They became (in)famous for building a ninety-thousand-square-foot home in Florida that they called Versailles. It is hard to resist seeing Jackie as a cheap version of Marie Antoinette. The caption for a photograph that emphasizes her four breast augmentation surgeries and an over-the-top diamond-and-sapphire necklace quotes Jackie: “You never can be too rich or have big enough boobs.” One of the most disturbing images in the entire book is of Jackie’s daughter Victoria, also twelve, who stands in front of a portrait of her father: he is dressed in royal robes, the crowned head of Jackie reflected in the mirror beside him. Victoria died of a drug overdose at the age of eighteen.
There is very little optimism to be squeezed from the pages of this compelling and curious book. The one bright spot in Generation Wealth is the section devoted to the people of Iceland, who have experienced both economic boom and fall, and subsequent to that, an emotional reattachment to a simpler way of life. Alas, the only American story that offers a usable counternarrative to unrepentant greed and gluttony is that of a reformed Wall Street trader named Sam Polk. He grew up in the lower middle class, but was able to graduate from Columbia University and find work in the financial district. For a time, he was dazzled by the men in his financial fraternity—“They all had these money clips . . . they’d pull them out and have a thousand in fifties.” He came to realize that even with a $3.6 million bonus in a single year, he “hadn’t helped anybody else.” So, he left his firm, moved to Los Angeles, and started an organization called Groceryships, which helps mothers living in food deserts. At the end of his rollercoaster ride along the class ladder, he cannot believe “how hard it is to people living in poverty to simply exist. . . . Somehow, we have created one of the most unequal cultures that has ever existed.”
What do we learn from this book that exposes the reality of class? In many ways, it is an old story. The themes Greenfield pursues, timely though they are, are not actually new. When I hear young Annika expressing her thoughts, I flash to actor Paul Muni in the film Scarface (1932). Muni’s character buys expensive suits, steals the boss’s mistress, and kills his way to the top of a crime organization; he looks out his window and sees his private version of the American Dream, a neon sign blinking the words, “THE WORLD IS YOURS.” Insatiable desire is something Western culture equates with childish behavior, and with primitive urges. If the 1990s gave us “the inner child,” the 2000s have given us a full-blown “baby-fication” of mass culture. What had already devolved into semiconscious craving has now become instinctual.
The class system in America has contributed to a new, more perverse social leveling. Social mobility has not improved; instead, it is the roles of adults and children that have apparently been inverted. The glorification of youth that we trace back to the roaring ’20s, and that was refashioned in the hippies heyday in the ’60s, has come to a point in which adult values of rationality and self-discipline have been thoroughly undermined. There is no such thing as delayed gratification anymore.
Greenfield’s book is reminiscent of two works by Vance Packard, the best-selling author who came to prominence in the late 1950s and influenced millions. His book The Status Seekers hit bookstores in 1959, and he was still thriving when he published The Ultra Rich: How Much Is Too Much? in 1989. In the first book, Packard defined status seekers as “people who are continually straining to surround themselves with visible evidence of the superior rank they are claiming.” He made the point that heightened stratification endowed Americans with a distinctive trait: they routinely looked for ways to separate the “elect from the non-elect.”
Americans have long adhered to the myth that they thoroughly broke free of the class system of Great Britain, when in fact they have only magnified it in their quest to define social status through material symbols. Class in America is not, and never has been, solely about income levels—it is a condition reproduced from parent to child. That is, children are not merely heirs to the class status of their immediate forebears; they are symbols of bloated excess for the rich and symbols of deprivation for the poor. The vaunted middle class that we imagine to be the very definition of American society, and that brings us both stability and provides a moral anchor, is neither as stable nor as well-anchored as we have been led to assume. Packard’s disturbing revelation about the vast middle is memorable. He writes: “The middle classes are all affectation and conceit and pretense and concealment.” Here he is quoting British prime minister Lord Melbourne, from the early 1830s. Melbourne’s point was that middle-class people were shapeshifters in terms of their values, because they were constantly striving to get ahead.
Americans have never embraced social equality. They have long held contempt for those who wallow just beneath them. It is not only the Texans who love “bigness”; there are a host of New Yorkers of the same grasping need for ostentation—no better represented in this example than the brash, insensitive, real estate man who built himself a Fifth Avenue penthouse in the style of Louis XIV and went on to become president. “He won votes by talking about how great he is,” writes Greenfield. Historically, class has always been about conspicuous display, or pride in the family name; the lower classes have often sought to imitate their social betters by looking for similar means of self-expression. (This is one reason why the dual businesses of designer fashions and imitation knockoffs thrive.) Greenfield also gives us the rapper Lil Jon with his $50,000 diamond grill on his front teeth, which effectively captures another old but accurate depiction of the American personality: it was Frances Trollope, a visitor to the country almost two-hundred years ago, who acidly remarked that all Americans were braggarts.
The message is that Americans, in the past, never felt secure in their class identity, and they still do not in the present day. They are constantly negotiating their place in the world: everything they buy and display and everything they utter about themselves becomes a desperate attempt to say, “I am somebody.”
Nancy Isenberg is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University and the author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016).
GENERATION WEALTH by Lauren Greenfield is on view at ICP Museum, New York, from September 20, 2017–January 7, 2018.