How Bret Easton Ellis helped Lauren Greenfield shoot the rich

On the photographer's birthday, we examine how a chance encounter with an old novel changed her career
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Mijanou, 18, who was voted Best Physique at Beverly Hills High School, skips class to go to the beach with friends on the annual Senior Beach Day, Santa Monica, California, 1993. From Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield
Mijanou, 18, who was voted Best Physique at Beverly Hills High School, skips class to go to the beach with friends on the annual Senior Beach Day, Santa Monica, California, 1993. From Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield

One day, in the early 1990s, a young American photographer called Lauren Greenfield found an old book in the boarding house she was renting in Chiapas, Mexico. Greenfield was shooting the local Zinacenteco Indians in the Chiapas highlands for National Geographic, her first commission for the magazine following an internship. Unfortunately, the shoot was not going well. 

 

Xue Qiwen, 43, in her Shanghai apartment, decorated with furniture from her favorite brand, Versace, 2005. In 1994 Xue started a company that sells industrial cable and has since run four more. She is a member of three golf clubs, each costing approximately $100,000 to join.
Xue Qiwen, 43, in her Shanghai apartment, decorated with furniture from her favorite brand, Versace, 2005. In 1994 Xue started a company that sells industrial cable and has since run four more. She is a member of three golf clubs, each costing approximately $100,000 to join.

These indigenous people did not like to be photographed, and every shot had to be negotiated. What, wondered this young anthropology and photography graduate, would it be like to document a community that actually liked having their photos taken?

The answer lay on a book shelf. The paperback that Greenfield had come across was Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, a seminal description of the rich, alienated kids of Los Angeles. Greenfield had already read the book, and herself had grown up among the rich kids of LA.

 

Lauren Greenfield
Lauren Greenfield

However, it had not yet occurred to her to train her lens on her class mates.  But on re-reading the novel, Greenfield realized not only were these rich Californian kids just perfect for a sociological and anthropological study, but that she, as a native Angelino, would be perfectly placed to carry out that study.

"I returned to L.A. and embedded myself at my alma mater, Crossroads, hanging around the alley that bisected the campus and served as the student parking lot and central hangout place," she recalls in the introduction to her book, Generation Wealth.

"One day, while I was photographing, three boys asked what I was doing. When I told them I was photographing 'growing up in L.A.', they said, 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 (a magnification device) that I saw that these thirteen-year-olds were waving $100 bills.

 

Christina, 21, a Walmart pharmacy technician, en route to her wedding in Cinderella’s glass coach, drawn by six miniature white ponies and with bewigged coachman, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 2013. From Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield
Christina, 21, a Walmart pharmacy technician, en route to her wedding in Cinderella’s glass coach, drawn by six miniature white ponies and with bewigged coachman, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 2013. From Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield

Greenfield's placement – in her old private prep school – was perfect, and her timing couldn't have been better too. "The period in which I came of age and started taking pictures was the beginning of a new era in terms of our relationship to money and wealth," says Greenfield.

"The Harvard historian Charles Maier posits that the seventies was a turning point, when America began a transformation from an empire of production to one of consumption. Ellis said, “The values of the Reagan eighties really placed this emphasis on wealth and, to a degree, celebrity—the idea that you were better off driving a BMW and looking super hot.”

 

The irony is, of course that, in the eyes of Greenfield's subjects, she has made it big too. Her book, Generation Wealth, is now a significant film also; backed by Amazon Studios, and featuring an interview with Bret Easton Ellis, among many others, it will receive international, cinematic distribution next month. Buy a copy of Generation Wealth here. Happy birthday Lauren!

 

Generation Wealth


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