Film Review: Generation Wealth

Far-too-diffuse documentary follows a range of people addicted to excess.
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Amazon Studios’ Generation Wealth is what Amazon is—too much. The title misleads, as Lauren Greenfield, in her lurid survey of real people with real excesses, focuses on neither a generation nor wealth. But “wealth” as a word and subject work for audiences, as the photographer/filmmaker learned from her previous effort, the acclaimed money-afflicted doc The Queen of Versailles. This was an up-close, icky portrait of obscene wealth gone south—and literally too, to Florida, where she filmed a flashy, no-shame new-money couple (the wife being the eponymous “queen”) who spent lavishly, stupidly and to some eyes very tastelessly in building what they hoped would be he biggest house in America.

The title of this new doc, suggesting kinship to finance-centric films like The Big Short, Too Big to Fail, Arbitrage, Wall Street and Margin Call, will disappoint viewers thinking it too will follow big money. Even the “generation” of the title isn’t nailed, as the subjects Greenfield follows cross several, beginning with a six-year old, JonBenét Ramsey-style beauty-pageant contestant blurting early on that she just wants money and going on to older generations (including the filmmaker’s mother).

But the title is catchy and, heck, wealth and the word itself sell. Versailles also showed the value of lurid, sensationalistic and extreme as thematic ingredients. Generation Wealth goes this same route. Crossing continents for what might be more appropriately titled “Mondo Mucho” (cf. the hit ’50s shock-doc Mondo Cane), we meet a variety of characters seeking too much gratification. They have exhibitionistic streaks and are shameless in sharing their often-sensationalistic needs, drives, obsessions and failings, which may be catnip for some viewers.

In addition to the tacky-looking beauty-pageant kid (by age 11 she has cooled to strutting her stuff), there’s a German cigar-chomping felon wanted in the U.S. He was once worth hundreds of millions but is now broke (but not broken!), after defrauding people out of millions. It’s his son who shares that Dad “always wanted more.”

There’s also a former porn star who made too many sex tapes and a vain hedge-fund workaholic who admits to spending “by far too much” on body maintenance. Other examples of excesses here include women craving too many handbags, men wanting the longest limo, Iceland making too many loans that brought the country to its knees, China craving bigger buildings, and Chinese women who pay high fees just to learn things like “how to cut an orange.”

Greenfield herself spends too much time on her own family (her too-smiley mother, especially) for some reason. We learn they are wealthy and accomplished and are reminded on too many occasions that Harvard runs through their generations.

Also drifting into matters of family, parenting and child-bearing, Generation Wealth is just too much. But the reality-TV generation may get much of what they want.