Lauren Greenfield on bling, shopping and the American Dream
In a new video clip, the award-winning photographer says feelings of inadequacy turn us into avid consumers
Lauren Greenfield is photographer, not an anthropologist, but she did take social sciences courses while a student at Harvard, and her pictures are never entirely free from earlier interests.
Her book Generation Wealth contains images of French aristocrats, LA rap stars, successful Vegas showgirls, and plenty of people who would like to emulate those lifestyles. However, it also includes contributions from people such as Chris Hedges, the Princeton University lecturer, who has a thing or two to say about the American Dream.
“People don’t dream in modest terms anymore,” Hodges says in the book. “They all want to live in Mar-a-Lago with Donald Trump.” Of course, we can’t all do that, even if some elements within the popular media suggest otherwise. In his Generation Wealth interview, Hodges argues that television in particular tells us “we can have this fictitious lifestyle. This is the lie that bombards people and fuels a sense of inadequacy,” he goes on. "Consumer society fosters anxieties, it promises to solve those anxieties, and then after it’s sold you this suit or that car, there’s a new anxiety.”
Now Greenfield has made a little (online) TV of her own, to address these same misgivings. In the clip, made for the pioneering new online studio, Topic and animated by the LA illustrator Lena Green, Greenfield explains why, in her view, “the American Dream has changed, from values of hard work and discipline and frugality to values of bling and celebrity and narcissism.”
Some of Greenfield’s earliest pictures were shot in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and feature high-school kids (including a young Kim Kardashian). Greenfield remembers asking some of her younger subjects what they wanted to do when they grew up. The most common answer was “rich and famous”, which as she points out in the video, “is not a job.”
Plenty of the girls also placed a lot of emphasis on personal beauty as a route to fame and fortune, though, as Greenfield extended her work beyond her immediate surrounds, she saw similar ambitions among the poor, the very young, and in other countries, where the American Dream was finding its way into their culture too.
When these dreams fail, people in Greenfield’s pictures didn’t always blame these unrealistic ambitions; many found fault with themselves, seeing themselves as inadequate. And, as Greenfield says, “if you tell people they’re not good enough, then they become avid consumers.”
It’s a neat argument, boiled down into a fun, three-minute clip. Watch the whole thing here and for a deeper meditation on the influence of affluence order a copy of Generation Wealth here.