'Money has ruined a lot of kids I know': the growing pains of Generation Wealth

13-year-old Adam at a Bar Mitzvah party, West Hollywood, 1992
13-year-old Adam at a Bar Mitzvah party, West Hollywood, 1992 Credit: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

In the early Nineties, I used to hang around the parking lot of my old school in Santa Monica, California, trying to photograph “growing up in Los Angeles”. One day, three boys asked what I was doing. When I told them, they said, in that case, I had to “show money. That’s what it’s all about.”  

They pulled bills out of their pockets, and I shot the boys holding them up. It wasn’t until I developed the film and looked at the images with a loupe that I saw that these 13-year-olds were waving $100 bills. Another 13-year-old, named Adam, confided in me that “money ruins kids. Money has ruined me.”

Seventh graders at recess, Santa Monica, 1992: Three students at Crossroads School, photographer Lauren Greenfield’s LA alma mater, wave $100 bills for the camera. One explains: “If you are doing a story about growing up in LA, you have to show money. That’s what it’s all about.” Credit: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

In today’s world, where the Kardashian offspring are household names and where Uber lets teens have their own “limo” at the touch of a smartphone, it is hard to remember why readers were shocked by my picture of two girls eating pizza in the back of a limousine on the way to a rock concert when it was first published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1992. 

Since that time, many of the phenomena that kids such as Adam helped me to understand in LA have exploded across the globe. Not only can everyone be famous today – via social media – but celebrities have become more and more a part of our everyday lives. The novelist Bret Easton Ellis observes that “LA kids were the first to have this intimate access to the movie business – how it works, who its stars were… That narcissism that is so full-blown in the culture now was just beginning to rear its head in that moment in LA… before it spread out everywhere.”  

Emily, 10, Peninsula Hotel, Beverly Hills, 1993: “It’s nice to live in a hotel,” says Emily, “but the kind of hotel I am in is very grown-up. There are not a lot of kids. I am good friends with a lot of the staff. Every time you pass by one of the staff, they go, ‘Good day.’ It’s part of their job to say that.” Emily had been living in the Presidential Suite for the past three months with her family and household staff. The family’s Bel-Air mansion was seized by the IRS after Emily’s real-estate mogul father pleaded guilty to tax and bankruptcy fraud. He was later sentenced to a six-year prison term.  Credit: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

I remember saying on the radio in the late Nineties that – despite the dramatic divisions in LA revealed by riots that I had covered in 1992 – rich kids and poor kids had found common ground that their parents had not, and it was a shared love for Versace. A decade on, when I documented uncannily similar imagery and phenomena during the global financial crisis of 2008 across the US and around the world, from California to Florida, and in Dubai, Ireland, and Iceland, I realised that many of the stories I had photographed since the early Nineties were part of a larger narrative. A diet of mass media had brought about an unexpected homogenisation, especially of youth culture. What people across the world had in common was now more powerful than their differences. 

For the past eight years, I have been compiling Generation Wealth, a book and companion film, from work made over the past three decades, such as my 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, about the timeshare king David Siegel and his wife Jackie; Thin, my 2006 film about women with eating disorders; and my books Girl Culture (2002) and Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood (1997). I have conducted more than 500 interviews, edited more than half a million photographs and taken more than 50,000 new shots. 

Ruby’s $16,000 quinceanera, Huntington Park, LA, 2001: “Every girl dreams about being a princess,” says Ruby, who celebrated her 15th birthday in the Hispanic community of Huntingdon Park with a $16,000 Cinderella-style ball for 200. “You want to grow into being pretty and loved.”   Credit: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

The title of Generation Wealth and many of the pictures could mislead the reader into thinking that this is a work about the one per cent, about people who are wealthy. It is not. It is about how the aspiration for wealth has become even more of a driving force – and at the same time an even less realistic goal – for the common man, woman or child. It is about how, although we have less social mobility now than we had in earlier generations, and an even greater concentration of wealth is in the hands of the few, the American dream – flouting that reality – has not withered but grown, to outsized proportions.  

“People don’t dream in modest terms anymore. They all want to live in Mar-a-Lago with Donald Trump,” social critic Chris Hedges told me.

And if you don’t have money, as Emanuel, one of my teenage subjects in Los Angeles, assures us, “there are ways to make it seem like you do”. The aptly named rapper Future explains that the strategy is to “fake it till you make it”. A facade of luxury will do. This sentiment is echoed by many of my subjects who seek material-based status, from Minnesota to Milan, South Central Los Angeles to Shanghai, Dubai to Moscow.

Limo Bob, 49, with his son, Bobby, 16, Chicago, 2008: “The greatest thing in life is to be a star,” says Limo Bob, owner of a firm of stretch limousines. “I started with nothing and made it to the top. I want to make Limo Bob a household name. If it doesn’t happen with me, I hope it happens with my son.” Credit: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

Along the way, I have tried to understand how a woman who launched her career with a sex tape can become a major celebrity admired by children around the world, and how there can be waiting lists to buy an Hermès Birkin bag, a handbag that can cost up to $300,000. Why is this handbag a known quantity to people as diverse as teenagers in Los Angeles, a chief executive in China, a psychologist in New York, and a party official in Moscow?

In one of my interviews, the rap promoter Kingpin observes that in our parents’ generations, people valued education, but that for the youth of today, wealth “is the new ‘Dr’ in front of your name… They want to be the freshest, the flyest, the coolest.” Another of my interviewees, Lil Magic, general manager of Magic City, a strip club in Atlanta, says that people don’t value hard work, but instead want easy money; and that people can’t tell the difference between entertainment and reality anymore. 

Eden Wood, 6, LA, 2011: “My favourite princess is me,” says 6-year-old beauty pageant winner, Eden Wood. Asked what beautiful means to her, Eden replies, “That I get money, and I’ll be a superstar.” Shortly after this photo was taken, she retired from pageants to focus on expanding her brand with a record deal, lookalike doll and her own reality-TV show.   Credit: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

President Obama, in a late stage of last year’s presidential race, compared the election to reality television. And now, of course, a reality-TV star who lives in a 24-carat-gold-ceilinged penthouse decorated in Louis XIV style has been elected as the leader of the free world – the apotheosis of Generation Wealth. 

Life imitates art, and we struggle to discern the difference.

This is an abridged version of the introduction to Generation Wealth 
by Lauren Greenfield, published by Phaidon on May 15 at £59.95. 

Lauren Greenfield will be in conversation with Anne McElvoy at the Design Museum, London W8, on May 18. For details, see: uk.phaidon.com/events

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