Is it un-American to say that someone can have too much money? That is one of the central questions posed by Generation Wealth, a documentary about society's insatiable appetite for money. In the film, which hit theaters on July 20, director Lauren Greenfield makes the case that during the past half-century, an obsession with wealth has spread throughout the world like a virus, corrupting the American dream and putting humans on a path that undermines their own well-being.
Generation Wealth is in many ways a companion to Greenfield's 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles. That film followed billionaires David and Jackie Siegel's ill-fated quest to build the largest home in the U.S., an 85,000-square-foot Florida mansion modeled on France's Palace of Versailles. Generation Wealth follows about a dozen strivers--some super-rich, some struggling to make ends meet--to see how they fare over several years in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
Where Greenfield succeeds is in her argument that the American dream has changed from working hard and getting ahead to getting rich and living glamorously. Interviews with Wall Street executives and bus drivers alike support her premise that society has created what Greenfield calls a "huge aspirational gap between what we want and what we can afford." The rise of social media and digital entertainment have contributed to that change, Greenfield argues.
"People used to compare themselves to their neighbors, and they aspired to be the neighbor that had a little bit more than they had," Greenfield says in the film. "Now people spend more time with the people they see on TV than their actual neighbors, and they want what they have."
An unsustainable path.
One person featured prominently in Generation Wealth is longtime hedge-fund investor Suzanne Murphy, a high-powered executive in her late 30s when Greenfield first interviews her in 2007. Self-admittedly driven by money, Murphy tells Greenfield, "If I want to work 100 hours a week and never see my family and die at an early age, that's my prerogative."
An extreme example of how an obsession with money can dominate someone's life, Murphy's story ultimately helps support Greenfield's argument that making money your top priority is unhealthy and unsustainable. When Greenfield interviews her years later, Murphy is a single mother who has replaced long work hours and evenings with clients with quality time with her daughter.
"I'm not working as hard as I have over the years," Murphy says. She also explains that rather than spending large sums to amass a pricey art collection--her main passion outside of work prior to motherhood--Murphy now prioritizes her spending around activities for her daughter, such as ballet and piano lessons.
While every business owner knows growing your bottom line can feel like the Holy Grail, Generation Wealth asks how much growth is enough, and makes a convincing argument that the question may be unanswerable. One case in point is former investment banker Florian Homm. Homm amassed a net worth of more than $500 million but explains in the film that he found himself always striving to earn more. "Success becomes its own perpetual vehicle," he tells Greenfield. Money obsession made him a "hamster in a diamond-studded gold wheel."
Entrepreneurs are likely to find much food for thought here. "Corporate capitalism pushes people towards this constant search for the next adrenaline rush," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges says in the film. "People seek that momentary ecstasy."
Though Generation Wealth casts a shadow over capitalism in the 21st century, its real message is that only capitalism at the expense of everything else has the tendency to corrupt. "Unfettered, unregulated capitalism does what it's designed to do, which is commodify everything," Hedges says. "Even human beings become commodities that you exploit for profit, until exhaustion or collapse."