In Theaters

In your opinion, what has value? Is it your possessions? Your financial holdings? Your social standing? Your physique? How much sex you have? Or is it something less tangible but more meaningful, such as the love of your life, your family, your friends or your career satisfaction? This question has plagued many of us in recent years, yet rarely are telling answers readily forthcoming. This lack of clarity has caused considerable confusion, often prompting us to seek refuge in surrogate solutions that we hope will provide us answers but that frequently come up short. And it’s a phenomenon that has seemingly spread across the culture – in fact, the globe – like a virus, one that’s growing ever more virulent, a subject explored in the disquieting new documentary, “Generation Wealth” (web site, trailer).

Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has spent much of her career documenting the lives of the affluent, especially their excesses of opulence, something that she has noticed has grown more blatant, if not self-servingly perverse, over the years. In that time, she has observed that, for many of those in money culture, it’s not enough just to have wealth; it has to be boundless, ever-growing, over-the-top wealth or it just isn’t worth talking about. And, to exacerbate matters, this attitude has permeated the culture to the point where it seems that’s what everybody wants, with coming up short almost representing a sign of personal failure.

Given these conditions, Greenfield has often wondered how we got to this point. How has this obsession with unbridled abundance come to color our thinking? Why have we become so preoccupied with the acquisition of money and possessions? And why do many of us feel, even after attaining a substantial degree of prosperity, that it’s perpetually insufficient?

Former hedge fund manager Florian Homm explains the joys and sorrows of excessive wealth in director Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, “Generation Wealth.” Photo © Lauren Greenfield.

In a similar vein, Greenfield also wondered why she has become so personally fascinated with documenting the trappings of this mindset. Admittedly, she has been around such wealth most of her life, having grown up with well-to-do Hollywood kids who never hesitated to blatantly flaunt their fortunes. And, even though Greenfield was raised in a family where their moderately comfortable standard of living was at least equal to if not better than average, her background paled in comparison to those of most of her peers, something that often prompted feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment. Were her efforts at documenting the lives of the rich and famous an attempt at vicariously living their experiences? And, if so, why was it so important to her in the same way that it seems to be so important to virtually everyone else in contemporary society?

“Generation Wealth” is an attempt to address these issues. This multi-platform project, which includes this film, as well as a book and museum exhibit, seeks to explore the rationale behind this way of life, providing evidence of opulence in the extreme, the personal stories of those who have lived this life-style and commentary from social science observers trying to understand it all. It also probes Greenfield’s personal existence, attempting to reconcile her sensibilities and experiences in connection with the foregoing.

In taking on these challenges, Greenfield combines footage from her previous films and images from her various photographic projects, along with the stories of individuals who have experienced both sides of the prosperity coin – those who have amassed wealth and managed to keep it, as well as those who had it and lost it or those who never had it and failed in their attempts to acquire it.

This approach provides a look at those who have sought to become filthy rich in a variety of ways, from hedge fund management to childhood celebrity to pornographic filmmaking. It also examines the myriad ways in which these subjects have sought to put their wealth to use, from building enormous mansions to sculpting perfect body types to getting plastic surgery for their pets. In illustrating this, Greenfield shows us that, no matter how outrageous we may find some of these expenditures, there are always others that are even more unbelievable, audacious and outlandish, many times far beyond anything we can possibly imagine.

Juvenile beauty pageant queen Evan Wood wants money as big as her surroundings, as detailed in director Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, “Generation Wealth.” Photo © Lauren Greenfield.

What’s most important in all this, though, is understanding why this phenomenon has occurred, a handle that’s a little more difficult to grasp. For those who grew up wealthy, it’s a way of maintaining status and what appear to be feelings of entitlement and superiority, elements that essentially equate to a sense of power and control. For those who grew up lacking, it’s a means to compensate for those long-held feelings of deficiency, something that may cover over old wounds but that ultimately doesn’t provide the fulfillment and satisfaction that they thought it would.

In either case, though, it’s not the money, possessions or status in themselves that is being sought; it’s the intangibles that their seekers believe these things will provide that is the outcome in pursuit. And that’s what’s most crucial in getting to the crux of these quests. Understanding the thoughts, beliefs and intents that make such results possible is at the heart of grasping the message of this film.

As the experiences of the individuals in this film demonstrate, beliefs are extremely powerful forces. They show how the intents they hold transform into tangible, materialized outcomes. But, in attaining the results they seek, it’s not the wealth that brings them what they want; it’s the beliefs that create the wealth that make these manifestations possible.

However, as is apparent throughout the film, the wealthy often come to realize that the physical trappings they acquire are seldom enough. Whether it’s designer handbags in every color, the perfect body, boundless sex or the largest bank accounts imaginable, they all tend to come up short, leading their creators to believe that the only thing that will make their situations better is the acquisition of more of everything. It becomes a trap from which escape is difficult.

Limo Bob (center), who holds records for creating the world’s largest stretch limousines, poses with his entourage in director Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, “Generation Wealth.” Photo © Lauren Greenfield.

Consider the cases of hedge fund manager Florian Homm, VIP party host Tiffany Masters and juvenile beauty pageant queen Evan Wood. All of them amassed seemingly everything they could want in their respective fields of endeavor. Yet, for all they accumulated, they still felt unfulfilled. Indeed, where does one go from up? Maybe other pursuits, like spiritual development, helping others and connecting with our kindreds are better, more satisfying options.

Still, if these other ventures are so fulfilling, then why aren’t we exploring them more than we do? That’s a hard question to answer, but, if we look back historically, Greenfield observes, we can see a turning point that began in the 1980s, when the new materialism began to gain a significant foothold in the culture and, subsequently, in our individual mindsets. But, as we have gradually come to see, such objectives are ultimately unsatisfying ends in themselves. This trend began in America and has since circled the globe, sometimes with perilous and grotesquely inequitable results, as evidenced by the experiences of such nations as Russia, China and Iceland. And, as one expert astutely observes, such rampant materialism, decadent opulence and unrestrained greed often appear as a society is about to collapse, citing the example of civilizations like Rome. This, of course, naturally begs the question, are we next? If the beliefs that led to Rome’s downfall are indeed not unlike those present in modern American (or even global) culture, this should give us serious food for thought.

In the meantime, as this film illustrates, it would be well worth our time to examine our beliefs and how we’re using them to shape the reality we experience. The cautionary tales served up here could provide us with valuable examples of how to adjust our thoughts and intents, to show us better and more gratifying paths, all aimed at helping us realize a new and improved existence.

“Generation Wealth” offers us an intriguing look at how the core values that once defined America (and much of the world) have come to be corrupted by greed, self-importance and instant gratification – and how the unsatisfying results of those dubious qualities never amount to enough. Director Greenfield’s ambitious undertaking covers a lot of ground, but, unfortunately, the film sometimes lacks a coherent approach, one that would have benefited from a little more objectivity and a little less emphasis on the filmmaker’s own story, one that often intrudes too much on the principal narrative. While this noble effort explores some valuable ground both directly and by implication, it could have benefited from some judicious retooling to drive home its contentions more on point.

Value is a nebulous concept that can be difficult to pin down, but there are some aspects of it that clearly seem more readily apparent than others. The trick lies in being able to recognize and then act upon them, first through our beliefs and then through the manifestations we seek to create with them. One can only hope, though, that we come to realize that there’s more meaning to life than using such abilities to get the latest designer purse. 

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Exposing the Ugly Truth

Bringing horrid and hateful practices to light takes guts. Sometimes it also takes creativity, especially when those vile matters are carefully hidden or carried out by those who operate in the shadows. But, when courage and innovation successfully join forces, the ugly truth can be exposed for all to see, drawing attention to the detestable nature of these concerns, a notion explored in director Spike Lee’s new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman” (web site, trailer).

When Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joined the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1972 as its first African-American officer, he was initially assigned to the records department, a dead-end position in which he was routinely mistreated by co-workers. That soon changed, however, when the department’s top cop, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke), tapped Stallworth for an undercover intelligence mission – to attend and gather information about the mood and attitudes of the Black community at a rally featuring Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) (Corey Hawkins), one of the founders of the Black Power movement.

Based on the success of this mission, Stallworth was soon appointed to a full-time position in the intelligence department. While reading a newspaper, he came across an ad seeking recruits for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Acting on an impulse, he responded to the notice, seeking to infiltrate the White supremacist organization. There was just one problem: Given his ethnicity, there was no way he could have any face-to-face contact with any of the Klan’s members. So, to compensate, he called upon his fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to impersonate him. This was a risky proposition, not only for the potential slip-ups that could undermine their operation, but also for the fact that Zimmerman was Jewish, a community the Klan scorned almost as much as it did Blacks.

Undercover detectives Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, right) and his impersonating doppelganger, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, left), seek to infiltrate the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in director Spike Lee’s new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Focus Features.

Nevertheless, despite these possible pitfalls, “the Stallworth brothers” proceeded with their plans. Zimmerman met with the local chapter leader, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and his radical, hot-headed  lieutenant, Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen), who suspected that the new recruit might be either a cop or Jewish (or both). While Walter appeared to trust the newcomer and his motivations, Felix – ever the skeptic – sought to verify Flip’s intentions by having him prove his authenticity through such measures as taking a lie detector test.

Considering the delicate nature of their operation, the detectives obviously needed to move cautiously. At the same time, though, Stallworth wanted to move things forward aggressively. For instance, given the slow pace of getting “his” membership application approved, he sought to expedite matters by reaching out to the Klan’s national leader, Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), to see if he could intervene on his behalf. And, after a phone conversation in which he thoroughly charmed the big boss, Stallworth managed to get his request accelerated. Before long, Flip had his new membership card in hand.

Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) takes a personal interest in a new recruit for the organization and officiates at his initiation ceremony in the new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Focus Features.

As all this played out, Stallworth also wrestled with striking a balance between his personal feelings and his professional duties. While he naturally wanted to see his fellow African-Americans become empowered and respected, he needed to make sure that his work didn’t turn into a personal vendetta, a significant challenge to be sure.

Avoiding such potential conflicts of interest also became apparent in Stallworth’s budding romance with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of the Black student union at Colorado College, which sponsored the Kwame Ture rally where the two first met. Again, Stallworth needed to balance his personal feelings with his professional duties, given that Dumas was a potential contact in an official capacity. What’s more, even though he appreciated Patrice’s passion for her cause, Stallworth also believed that the pursuit of personal empowerment and the need for law and order were not mutually exclusive issues. This is why he kept his profession a secret from her, because he knew that, if he revealed this information to Patrice, she would drop him in a heartbeat considering her disdain for the police. Yet another tightrope to be navigated.

All of these elements come to a head when Duke reveals that he personally plans to visit Colorado Springs to officiate at Flip’s initiation ceremony, an event that coincides with a presentation to the Black student union by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte), a witness to the historic and horrific 1916 lynching of teenage farmhand Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. This combination of events has the potential for explosive consequences, one that threatens to plunge the community and its various constituents into peril.

Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), head of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, warmly welcomes a new recruit to his organization, not realizing that he’s dealing with an undercover detective, in director Spike Lee’s new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Focus Features.

Director Spike Lee’s latest explores a variety of issues, all of which are just as relevant today as when this story was set. The film examines what it means to be true to one’s feelings, a challenge that can be made especially difficult when potentially conflicting beliefs are involved. This draws attention to the need for striking a balance, one that may not be easy to achieve and almost certainly calls for creative solutions to achieve resolution. Most importantly, though, the picture examines what it means to live courageously in the face of bald-faced prejudice and hate, making it clear where lines are to be drawn – and what simply won’t be tolerated.

“BlacKkKlansman” is easily one of the filmmaker’s best movies in years. Washington, Driver and Grace excel in their roles, bringing their characters to life with undeniable authenticity, and the period piece production values are top-notch across the board. As with most of Lee’s work, the film admittedly suffers from some occasional issues with choppy storytelling, awkward cinematography and message overkill (problems that always seem to intrude on the filmmaker’s work), yet this latest offering nevertheless serves up a good mix of suspense, humor and social commentary in a generally well-crafted period piece. It’s nice to see the director getting back into good form once again.

The film is already garnering some awards buzz, having taken home some notable trophies. Earlier this year the picture won the Grand Prize of the Jury and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or, the Festival’s highest honor. Don’t be surprised if it picks up additional honors as awards season gears up.

Undercover detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, left) and Black Power activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier, right) struggle with uncomfortable personal and professional relations in director Spike Lee’s new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Focus Features.

The experiences of individuals like Ron Stallworth and his peers offer us an emboldening, inspired example for taking on those who seek to hold us down with intimidation and hate. Their tactics may frighten, but their numbers are often small, far from insurmountable. And, with an effective mix of bravery and inventiveness, these foes can be vanquished. After all, with a bright light squarely shining on them, there’s no place to hide – even under the sheets.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

The Award Is Here!

I’m thrilled to announce the receipt of my award medallion as a finalist in this year’s National Indie Excellence Awards competition! This tremendous honor, presented earlier this year, was bestowed on my latest title, Third Real: Conscious Creation Goes Back to the Movies. My thanks to the NIEA for recognizing my work in this way!

Cover design by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.