KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Plastic, surgery, private jets, toddlers in designer clothes, magnums of champagne served by costumed fairies who fly through the air - looking through the 500-page book "Generation Wealth," you see all of that. It's a new collection of photographs by Lauren Greenfield. And it's not just pictures of people who are wealthy. It's people who want to be wealthy - a homeless woman with her knockoff Louis Vuitton purse, gang members with diamond and platinum grills.
This is Lauren (laughter).
LAUREN GREENFIELD: Hi.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.
GREENFIELD: Nice to meet you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nice to meet you.
GREENFIELD: OK, great. Let me just...
MCEVERS: I met up with Greenfield at the Annenberg Space for Photography here in Los Angeles, where there is an exhibit to accompany the new book. And she says some of her early work was photographing kids here in LA where she grew up. And this project about wealth and striving for wealth just developed from there even though she didn't know it was about that at the time.
GREENFIELD: I started it as a kind of looking back at the culture that I grew up in. And then I went on to do other things about gender, about fashion, about consumerism, about how our values were exported. And it wasn't until the 2008 financial crash I realized that the stories that I had been doing for a couple of decades were all connected and kind of formed a morality tale.
And so I started a process of going back and going forward, going back and looking through all my old work and seeing how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, what I had missed and also making new work that filled out this picture that I was starting to see about what it all added up to.
MCEVERS: What it added up to is this massive collection of images organized into sections with titles like "I Shop Therefore I Am" and "The Princess Brand." It's in chronological order, and at the exhibit, we start in the early '90s with images of private school kids, seventh graders, each flashing a hundred-dollar bill. If you're going to do a story about growing up in LA, they told Lauren Greenfield, you have to show money. Then there's the photo of high school kids who've skipped school to cruise the beach in their convertibles. And Greenfield says these kids aren't rich.
GREENFIELD: I mean the thing about this project is it's not about the rich. It's really about our aspiration to wealth and our kind of needing to show that off whether we have it or not. So with the rich kids, I was kind of looking at how they were growing up quickly and how they were influenced by the values of Hollywood. But they were really influenced by the media and kind of MTV and hip-hop and looking to gangster culture and hip-hop culture for inspiration. And so then I also photographed kids from East LA and South LA who, on the other side, were emulating the trappings of wealth.
MCEVERS: It's like a feedback loop, she says. The rich kids want to look like the poor kids, and the poor kids want to look like the rich kids. We look at another picture of a kid in a pinstriped suit and a rose boutonniere paying for a limo outside his prom date's house.
GREENFIELD: Enrique was living in South Central. His mother was a seamstress. And he spent two years saving the $600 that he spent on prom. And his mother thought money could go to better use, but that - she knew how important it was to him. And he said it was completely worth it. They had a limo. It picked them up in South Central. Everybody was looking. And he said he felt like the king that day.
GREENFIELD: So I think it's really important to understand that these values go beyond the rich. They go beyond the poor. They kind of cross class and race and even border.
MCEVERS: All right, let's keep walking. Oh, yeah.
There's a section in the exhibit called "The Queen Of Versailles" about a wealthy couple that builds this huge mansion, a section called "Cult Of Celebrity" with early images of the Kardashians. I mean this is Greenfield capturing famous people learning how to be famous.
GREENFIELD: Fame has been an important driver in the work and the rise of fame. And with the rise of reality TV and the rise of social media, everybody can be a celebrity, and fame has currency. And so in a lot of my interviews, when you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, they say rich and famous.
MCEVERS: A theme that seems to emerge a lot, too, in your work is that people will pay money and want to acquire money to look like and have the trappings of having money.
GREENFIELD: Exactly. There's a lot of fake it till you make it. Future the rapper says fake it till you make it. Kingpin (ph), a rap promoter, says playing the role is as important as being the role.
MCEVERS: You know, there's all these pictures of people at pool parties and other sections - you know, champagne and all this stuff. Like, in some ways, they look like they're having a really good time. Did you get a sense that these people are happy?
GREENFIELD: Well, David Siegel from "The Queen Of Versailles" had a great quote when he said, money doesn't make you happy. It just makes you unhappy in a better section of town.
GREENFIELD: You know, there's a striving that kind of continues among the rich. And "Queen Of Versailles" was a perfect example. They lived in a 26,000-square-foot house and then built a 90,000-square-foot house. So that is just kind of the best example of it never being enough. There's kind of a theme of addiction and the addiction of consumerism. And so with addiction, you never have enough, and there's no satisfaction. And eventually you hit rock bottom.
MCEVERS: Which brings us to a section called "The Fall" where Lauren Greenfield captures the damage done by the 2008 economic crash. The pictures are different here. There are no pool parties. This is wealth pursued and taken away, people who reached up and discovered they reached too far.
GREENFIELD: From Chuck, a GM worker who is in foreclosure and lost his job when the GM factory left town, to Jenny, who was a real estate agent, very successful in the crash, bought a house, built a pool and then lost it to foreclosure and had to turn to phone sex because it was the only job she could do at home where she wouldn't take her truck out and fear having her truck be repossessed.
GREENFIELD: This is an empty home where the child's trophies were all left in the garage.
MCEVERS: The exhibit ends with a section called "Make It Rain" - dollar bills floating down on naked women who crawl on the floor and pick them up at a famous strip club in Atlanta, a T-shirt that says being broke is not an option. And Greenfield says now, decades after she started taking these pictures, projecting wealth is more important than ever.
GREENFIELD: I think the backdrop of these 25 years is that we've never had more inequality, and we've never had less social mobility. So in a way, fictitious social mobility, bling and presentation, has replaced real social mobility.
MCEVERS: Right because it's all you can get.
GREENFIELD: Because it's all you can get. And there's - you know, I've kind of looked at this shift in our values where we've gone from kind of the Protestant ethic of hard work and thrift and frugality and modesty to a culture of bling and showing off and narcissism. And there is this kind of elevation of materialism that's almost like the new spirituality.
MCEVERS: Lauren Greenfield, thank you so much.
GREENFIELD: Thank you.
MCEVERS: This has been really, really interesting.
GREENFIELD: Thanks for doing it.
MCEVERS: Lauren Greenfield's book is called "Generation Wealth." The exhibit is up at LA's Annenberg Space for Photography through August 13.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "PINK BULLETS")
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