A man sitting on a leather couch, smoking a cigar, and looking ecstatic as he says “I love money” is a sight you would expect to see in a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street, behind some closed door in the Financial District. Except the scene in question is shot about 4,000 miles away, and its protagonist—whose German accent, if not the gilded background, gives him away—is none other than Florian Homm, the “Antichrist of finance.”
The last time he set foot in the United States was 2007, when he abruptly resigned as the head of Absolute Capital Management and fled the country with over $200 million. He is now living in his native Frankfurt, as Germany does not extradite its own citizens. An ocean away from charges of investment fraud, he seems to have found penitence as, stroking the rosary around his neck, he waxes poetic about his days as a “hamster in a diamond–studded, gold wheel.”
It's easy to take the moral high ground and look down on Homm's actions. But such readily available and extreme judgments are exactly what Lauren Greenfield is trying to challenge in her newest documentary Generation Wealth, which explores what lies beneath the post–Reagan culture of egregious affluence.
As Homm puts it, he learned at Harvard Business School that “it wasn’t about who you are, but about what you are worth…Morals are completely non–productive in that value system.”
Greenfield, who has spent the past twenty–five years documenting the lifestyles of the rich and more–or–less famous, told Street she finds the subjects she investigates “human and compelling in their strengths and their flaws.”
Generation Wealth doesn’t mean to turn the tables on modern royalty and provide a moralistic take on obnoxious wealth. Instead, Greenfield asks open–ended questions which allow her to “probe deeper where it becomes interesting.”
Generation Wealth is undoubtedly interesting throughout, even though at times it feels like the subject matter is a bit too dense for a documentary film. Greenfield tries to present the accounts of ten different characters in just over a hundred minutes, and their stories, though interconnected by the overarching theme of wealth, are so varied that they become hard to follow. The film shifts back–and–forth between tales of bar mitzvahs drenched in Armand de Brignac, and emotional insights into events where public coverage deeply affected the subjects’ mental health.
Indeed, as expected, that’s where the glossy surfaces crack and what lies underneath is revealed to be either dark, or completely void. Tiffany, a successful VIP hostess in Vegas, recognizes that, in search of wealth, “you sell your soul to the devil.” Suzanne, a hedge–fund executive who prioritized her work in her thirties, eventually hires a surrogate after twenty–five IVF cycles prove ineffective; Homm himself says, in what functions as a thesis statement for the project, “if you think that money will buy you anything and everything, you’ve never, ever had money.”
The hypnotic aura that Homm and the others have experienced firsthand is recreated by Greenfield through the use of what she calls “the language of popular culture and media: saturated colors, dynamic composition, shiny surfaces, provocative juxtapositions.”
What she aims to do isn’t necessarily to add an insightful dimension to consumerism, but to point out some of its indicators that are so present in our everyday lives that it has become hard to recognize them. And, having grown up in this culture, it’s not like we would automatically know how to either: college students today “are heavily engaged with and impacted by social media, popular culture, aspirational and commercial pressures, and pressure to keep up with peers,” says Greenfield, speaking about the decline in mental health on campuses across North America.
This last statement is, perhaps, what sums up Generation Wealth best: in a combustive combination of “the inherent drivers of capitalism, media, and the human capacity for both greed and insecurity,” it’s hard to point out a supervillain. In a way, one could say that some of the competitors for that title are society itself, capitalism, television, and Ronald Reagan, amongst others.
On the other hand, Greenfield conveys that it is possible to exit this whirlpool of Hermès bags and diamonds—but quitting itself comes at a cost. Whether we can still afford it, as a society, ultimately comes down to how quick we are to admit that films like Generation Wealth are cautionary tales and not glamorous stories.