“If you think money will buy you anything and everything, you’ve never, ever had money.” That, from former hedge fund gazillionaire Florian Homm who photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield interviews in her eye-opening and somewhat disturbing “Generation Wealth” film. Released over the summer, I just recently watched it and found it mesmerizing.
In a nutshell, the film documents that being average and normal, whether in looks or wealth, is no longer good enough. You have what you need, but still don’t feel like you have enough is a growing and pervasive thought. We are addicted to and obsessed with wealth and status symbols on a level never seen before. We are a generation always looking for more, more, more. More money and toys. More and bigger homes. More boats and bling. More status and symbols of it. Sadly societies, like the one that built the Great Pyramids, often build their wealth when they are in decline. Are we there yet mom and dad? Not sure, but the warning signs are at every fork in the road we’re facing.
I use “we” collectively here, meaning society in general. Yes, we blame society but we are society. Hopefully this post doesn’t personally pertain to you, but don’t feel like its subject matter doesn’t affect you. It does. I know it involves and affects me. Yes, I love fixing up my house just so and I’m right there in line in Paris for a designer bag, but I won’t go into debt for either. And to be clear, this isn’t about financial freedom, which we all covet, it’s about buying and buying more just to show off. Some say it’s not about the money, it’s about the lifestyle and yes, that is partially true, but just how many cars and how big of a house does one really need? Do you really love those Louboutins and would you have bought them if they didn’t have those red soles?
I love what Warren Buffet once said about wealth. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically he said that being wealthy is for sure nice, but anyone who makes good money can buy the big house and the fancy jewels and cars. The real key he says, is a private plane. Those my friends, separate the men from the boys and if I ever win the lottery, a private plane is first on my list (along with a private chef!) Can you imagine just being able to fly anywhere anytime and not have to deal with TSA precheck, parking, waiting at a crowded gate, and the dreaded C group or middle seat? Dream on Carla.
Greenfield documents how there has been a shift in the American dream and that the new dream is status, fame, and fortune. Long gone are the tried and true values of hard work, frugality, and discretion. Americans want it now and they want it quick. Young America feels entitled to it. Bigger is better and if a lot is good, then more must be way better. To prove this, look no further than that giant HD television proudly mounted on your wall.
It used to be TV shows were entertaining but today we are inundated with fictitious lifestyles that don’t really entertain us but rather fuel our inadequacies. And make no mistake; these so-called “reality shows” are anything but real. The proverbial Joneses we try to keep up with are no longer our neighbors but the Housewives and the Kardashians. Ironic that the scandal-ridden family’s long running “reality” show has “keeping up” right in its title and that very little about them is real, no? It’s fitting though, since “Generation Wealth” notes that we spend more time with people on TV then we do with any of our neighbors, including the Joneses. We also make decisions based on what we see on TV including how we spend our money, how we talk to our parents and our children, what we eat, and what cosmetic procedures we think will make us happier and whole.
All of this carries over into social media, film, and music. I remember reading a few years ago that, for the first time in history, not one Top 10 movie was set in reality. Telling too is the fact that the whole Kardashian moguldom was started by a sex tape that went viral. What does that tell young girls? Make a sex tape and you too can have the big house and the Birkins?
Today’s non-celeb posters all long to be “influencers,” whatever that might mean today or 10 years from now. They are all seeking fame and fortune through personal branding and number of “followers” but I’m pretty sure most of them will discover real jobs await for them and once those filters come off and the next “It” girl arrives, their 15 minutes of “likes” fame will have run its course.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as guilty as anyone regarding social media. I post on Facebook and Instagram and will post this blog online as well. But I will say that I’m not big on following anyone who only and constantly posts photos of themselves, most of which are filtered to death. Instead I gravitate toward sites that make me laugh or make me think. Okay, and home decor.
Another casualty in this quest for having all that money can buy is beauty. “Generation Wealth” calls physical makeovers the new American rags to riches success story but it’s no longer just the wealthy getting them. People are literally going into debt to change their face or body and as we see in the movie, one woman went to Brazil for major and multiple augmentation surgeries but later lost custody of her two kids because she couldn’t afford them. Hashtag break my heart.
We are obsessed with the superficial and just seem to never be satisfied with our looks and are more than eager to buy elective surgery. Elective. Who elects to have surgery if they really don’t need it? People aren’t aging like in prior generations and the value of looking young trumps aging gracefully. I don’t know about you, but when I see a 50 or so year old woman with a “new” face, I don’t think “Wow, she looks great!” I think, “Wow, she’s has some work done.” This constant yearning to “fix” one’s body and to be something or someone we’re not is just another way to buy and escape reality. And I don’t care what any feminist or #metoo member says, girls are learning from a very young age that their bodies and faces are currency and that beauty is how you win.
Gordon Gekko so famously said “Greed is good” in 1987’s “Wallstreet” and there is definitely a collective greed among us but we are paying the price for it. Americans want to make it big overnight and get rich quick and we are working ourselves to death at the expense of our health and family. Meantime, morals and values have declined and we are losing balance in our lives. Homm explained it as being “a hamster on a gold studded wheel.” Yikes.
There’s also a prevailing “fake it till you make it” mentality in that we long to be the “haves” and will do anything to conceal that we’re really the “have nots.” There is growing concern that poor and middle class people spend as much as the rich on designer goods and live by the credo that everyone wants to be rich and if you can’t, the next best thing is to be feel rich. But how can you possibly feel rich when you get all those bills every month or grab that fake purse on your way out the door? I just don’t get it.
Seems we have become so desperate to express our success and status in the face of others that we are virtually trapped in our own ambitions. Too often the presentation we give to the world denies our own realities. It all reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. I’ll never forget when a friend told me that her wise, old, southern grandpa once told her, “Old money and no money are the same. Neither of them show it.” Hmmmmm….so eloquent and true.
This money is success thinking is not unique to America. Our addiction to consumerism has been fueled by globalization and for proof look no further than China and Russia, two societies that have historically tried to abolish class and inequality but are today are dripping in indulgent lifestyles. In the film you meet a Chinese man who built an exact replica of the White House for his home, complete with Mount Rushmore in the backyard. It is said that China is the biggest market for western luxury goods and Russian debutante balls once reserved for royals and aristocrats are now sponsored and run by designer houses. Entire cultures are being destroyed or lost because societies are more concerned with buying Louis Vuitton then preserving sacred traditions.
As I write this, I hear two voices. One is the older generation saying “but haven’t we always ogled over glitz and glamour, from the Kennedys to the royals?” I also hear the younger generation, including my daughter, saying, “oh mom, you’re over reacting.” But am I? Maybe yes, maybe no. Yes if you simply admire and respect the finer things in life but no if you’re obsessed with them, buy fake ones or ones you can’t afford, and allow your self-worth to be defined by them. If you simply have an interest in some luxury goods (raising my hand) but do not go into debt acquiring them, then yeah maybe a red-soled flag needn’t be raised for you.
I’m also well aware that being motivated by money is sometimes a good thing regarding business success and that in some very ways it can indeed buy happiness. It’s the current intense love for excess that has me and many others worried. Just like there is always someone smarter than you, there is always someone richer than you. Unless you’re Jeff Bezos. No one can remain truly fulfilled and happy living with a “me, myself, and I and my net worth” mentality. No one.
So what does this mean for the next generation and today’s young adults who have grown up in a “never too much” environment? It means even they can be “sold” for status, as the recent college admission scandal showed us. I personally see it all spiraling. Kids seem to be in such a rush to grow up. Jewelry and purses my daughter asked for for Christmas and birthdays when she was in high school are now every day items for elementary-aged kids and younger. She recently visited her college alma mater, which happens to be the same as mine, and was shocked to see young coeds sporting brands and labels that grown women used to save and ask for. Hermes belts and bags? Check. Neverfulls and Goyards? Check, check. Love bracelets? Checkmate. In college. On 18 and 20 some-year-olds. Cray cray.
You could say they are the true “generation wealth” as they have lived in the most privileged time in the most prosperous nation. Even the poorest of them have probably never not had a cell phone or internet. The ones Greenfield profiles admit they live with the constant pressure to have it all and that a wealthy legacy is almost too big of a burden to bear, leading many to addiction. Rich kids are not always happy and they are often raised by “help” because mom and dad are too busy working day and night. Yes they live in a world of privilege and wealth, but also one that lacks traditional family life and is often racked with perverse morals and values.
As for the parents of these kids, most regret how they raised them and if they could do it again, they’d focus more on their kids and less on their work and making more, more, more money. The kids themselves all say they just want to be the good parents they didn’t have growing up and want to be there and nurture their kids.
Some of this is nothing new; it’s only now on a grander and more publicized scale. Back in the 1970s we started borrowing to maintain a certain lifestyle that we could no longer afford and the 1980s brought a burgeoning emphasis on wealth. Think “Dynasty” and “Dallas,” Gordon Gekko and the then new “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” TV show. I was in college in the ‘80s in a place where oil was flowing and friends had Porches and Rolex watches. I couldn’t believe my eyes and this very middle class product felt a bit out of her league yet quickly found life-long friends among them. That oil boom eventually went bust, as did the housing and financial industries so famously in 2008. It really never lasts.
At the end of every decaying culture people retreat into their own illusions and sexual hedonism dominates. Have you seen pop culture lately? Porn is everywhere. It is pervasive and it is accessible. Music videos are practically X-rated, it’s suddenly ok to spend money on strippers, and there are even pole dancing “exercise” classes. Movies, music, and videos all glamorize and feature strippers and young girls post soft porn photos on their social media accounts. I saw this firsthand last spring in the Bahamas. My girlfriends and I were on vacation and watched in horror as three young adult girls posed on the beach in what can only be described as extremely provocative poses in front of us and families of all ages. There is really such a prevailing lack of shame making sex just another extension of commerce and the wealth it has created.
So what do we do? We can’t – gasp – stop making money, right? It’s the American way! Experts Greenfield interviewed all agreed that what we need to do is stop following toxic and insatiable dreams. We need to come back to what matters. Anything else is delusional. Bring back faith and family. Bring back morals and values. Bring back the value of hard work and earning what you have. Scratch entitlement from our vocabulary and stop giving medals and awards for everything. Living in debt is not the answer and our realities need to be our true lives, not those we see on TV.
I will close with the closing line of “Generation Wealth.” As a Las Vegas “escort” talks about all she’s seen and done she also acknowledges the toll it’s taken on her and her son. And as she painfully and delicately tries to convince us that it’s all been worth it and dreaming and wishing are good and normal, she cautiously warns, “Be careful what you wish for.” Indeed. Even rich men need God.