About a quarter of the way into Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, “Generation Wealth,” fugitive financier/con artist Florian Homm declares that given a limitless supply of a key resource, any system is bound to eventually bloat and collapse.
Specifically, Homm was waxing theatrical about the unfettered printing and lending of money that underlies much of the garish consumption Greenfield has documented for the last 25 years.
In the case of “Generation Wealth,” the same wisdom applies to the glut of elements Greenfield attempts to jam into her career retrospective, opening Friday, Aug. 10, at Speed Cinema. The result is a hodgepodge of images and interviews that never congeals into either a meaningful narrative or potent personal memoir.
And it’s the later shortcoming that proves most frustrating.
The problems with “Generation Wealth” are tipped off in its central conceit — namely that Greenfield, who also narrates the film, is searching for an overarching theme as she curates a career retrospective book, entitled, as you may have guessed, “Generation Wealth.”
There’s really no secret here. Greenfield grabbed the national spotlight with 1997’s “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood,” her photo essay on the status culture of rich kids in L.A.
(Greenfield, the child of two Harvard grads, attended an elite private high school, so she’s always documented conspicuous wealth as a close neighbor, if not a full-on participant.)
Her 2012 documentary “The Queen of Versailles” was embraced as a living portrait of the real estate market collapse, and the excellent “Thin” (2006) is among her many powerful studies of the commodification of the female body in a status-driven culture.
Not surprisingly, Greenfield comes to no new revelations about the substance of her work. In fact, the idea that she’s even looking for some new insight meanders off to nowhere after it serves its true purpose — to set up updates on many of her former subjects, including the kids from “Fast Forward.”
These conversations are sometimes interesting, but more often they are just banal. They also point to the second major failing of “Generation Wealth” — examining broad current social and political issues exclusively through anecdotes, or as Greenfield herself says, examining the extremes of society to understand the mainstream.
That can make for powerful individual storytelling and emotional moments, and certainly “Generation Wealth” has plenty. Greenfield’s keen eye ranges from Atlanta strip clubs, where dancers carry out bags of cash nightly, to a woman who’s fixation on plastic surgery she can’t afford has tragic consequences, to a Chinese entrepreneur who charges thousands to teach the proper pronunciation of luxury brand names.
Homm, who is still on the run from U.S. authorities, is a guilty pleasure as he tries to present himself as a reformed soul.
But it’s poor science, social or otherwise. And cutting in clumsy talking-head commentary segments about global capitalism and images of Donald Trump opening tacky golden doors don’t bring the intended gravitas to the film’s assumptions.
Far more interesting, and irksomely underdeveloped, are Greenfield’s personal reflections about her own family life and what, if any, parallels she can find between her own drive for career success and her subjects’ desire for validation through acquiring stuff.
The film’s best moments come when Greenfield turns the camera on her sons and asks them about the pressures of living up to expectations, and in Greenfield’s interview with her mother, an accomplished anthropologist whose “workaholic” tendencies have had an enormous impact on the filmmaker’s own life.
The film closes with Greenfield asking herself why she still chooses to bring up her kids in the same L.A. she grew up in, facing the same pressures she has critiqued throughout her career. It’s a brave question to ask, but it’s left hanging with very little answer.
Hopefully she’ll return to the theme in a later, more focused film, when she doesn’t have a career omnibus to sell.
“Generation Wealth” screens Friday, Aug. 10, at 6 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 11, at 3 and 6 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 12, at 3 p.m. It’s Rated R, with sexual content. General admission is $9.