'I wanted a more emotional experience for the viewer' an interview with director Lauren Greenfield

Best known for directing The Queen of Versailles and the most recent documentary Generation Wealth, Lauren talks about the inspiration behind writing Generation Wealth and how it varies from her previous work.

30th November 2018
/ By James Collins


Lauren, can you first introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got involved in photography and documentary making?
I studied Film & Anthropology at Harvard, so I kind of came into it interested in the sociology and anthropology of people – but wanted to do it through photography.

I started at National Geographic, and this is in the movie; I went to photograph a Mayan Indian village and, while I was there, I just felt like it was very disconnected from what I knew and what I understood. I thought that maybe I’d be able to have a deeper understanding of what I was documenting if I went back and looked at my own culture.

I started by photographing kids in LA and the way they were affected by the values of Hollywood – materialism, image and celebrity. That was really the work that began this Generation Wealth project.

When did you figure out that you were going to make the film?
It was like two stages. When the financial crash happened and I was making my last film, The Queen of Versailles, I started to think that maybe a lot of the stories I had covered since the 90s were connected and together told a larger story. Mainly about how we had changed as a society - how our values and aspirations had changed.

I was really struck when I would talk to kids and, when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they often say “rich and famous”. It made me think that there was this shift that had happened in the American Dream, and went back and looked at it.

It first began as a book and an exhibition and, to that end, I went through more than half a million pictures from my archive and shot another 50,000. In the course of doing the book and listening to the voices of all these subjects that I had met over the last 25 years, I just realised that I wanted to make a movie. I wanted to make a movie so I could follow in and go deeper on some of these characters and see what had happened to them over time. I also wanted to show a historical perspective. When you’re in my pictures, you’re just in my pictures – I wanted to expose the change to what had gone before; show how it was different in my parent’s generation.

I also wanted a more emotional experience for the viewer. Film, I think, just by its very nature, can be more empathetic and more emotional. You can get into someone’s shoes more than just in a photograph. I felt like that was really important, because I felt that Generation Wealth was a very timely issue and one in which we’re all participating and complicit in some way.

In terms of the nuts and the bolts, over what period of time was the movie filmed and when did you sit down to work on it as a piece to be released?
About three years. I started filming at the beginning of January 2014 and went until the end of 2017. So, I guess four years actually for the film.

It was about a 30-month edit – including two editors working at the same time for 12 months, so double counting that. It was probably three times the edit time of any film I’ve made.

It was like a jigsaw puzzle really, just figuring out how the pieces connected and also being open to the evolving stories of some of the characters and my own story – both of which changed the nature of the film.

During the film, we’re lucky enough to meet your family and there is a moment where the perspective of the film does shift more to yourself - was this something you knew from the beginning or did it happen during the making of the film?
It’s something that evolved and I hope it’s an experience that the audience has also – you think that it’s about somebody else and then you realise it’s about you.

Things bubble up in my own life that paralleled, but maybe not the same extreme, some of the subjects. I felt it was important to include that too, so we can see how we are all complicit and nobody is outside these influences.

I also wanted to show the idea of legacy and agency - we inherit all these values and behaviours from our parents and from society, but then there’s also the possibility of change and agency.

It’s really hard to be outside of it, unless you’re literally unplugging your television. I think it’s hard to be outside the exposure of the media messages, which are often coming from corporate branding and for-profit entities that have their own agenda - which is not our greater good. It’s hard to be exposed to those forces and not be affected by them in some way. But, I hope that the movie and the work help to deconstruct them, so we can see the matrix we’re in more clearly and have some more power over it.

You have a lot of footage and archive footage – what’s the process in a 30-month edit and what were some of the most difficult choices you had to make in terms of what to leave out of the film?
Well, our first cut was four and a half hours; it was a process. The first thing was figuring out which characters really warranted going deeper into and really had arcs that spoke to Generation Wealth. It was also a process of weeding out the ones that were really just data points in the story but didn’t have their own arcs.

Then there is weeding out repetition. In my book and in my photography, I use a lot of repetition to show typologies – to show how kids are doing the same thing in California, Italy, Dubai, China. I found that in the movie, you need to say it once and move on.

Finding the most effective ways to tell the story and also figuring out how to structure all these really different pieces. I ended up structuring it around my journey and the artist’s journey, and my voice became more central than I expected. Once my voice was more central, I wanted to also show what I learned along the way.

There’s something that your mother says in a quote that I actually wrote down to tell my daughter in 10 or 15 years – “the things you didn’t have when you were younger, were things I wasn’t interested in”.
That’s great because I resented that as a kid and now I feel like, ultimately, I really learnt from it.

Some of the other work you mentioned in the movie - documentaries you’ve made over the past few years – do you feel the way you make movies has changed during the process of making these films?
I find the film medium really challenging and each film has been completely different - in the way that I’ve learned from them, but also I wasn’t able to use the last one as a model. THIN was completely pure vérité; there were almost no interviews. The Queen of Versailles was more of a mix between interviews and telling the story and vérité. And this movie is completely constructed and written in more of an essay form, and a personal form. I don’t think I’ll ever make another film like this either. That’s the exciting thing about this medium – everyone is different. I feel like it’s such a learning process.

With both The Queen of Versailles and this film, I depended on advisors from Sundance. With this film, we showed it to a lot of friends and colleagues for note screenings. I still feel like I’m a beginner as a filmmaker, even though this is my third feature length film. It’s just because each film has to work on its own terms and it’s so different.

What is the journey you are taking currently with Generation Wealth and what are you looking forward to working on in the future?
The show is travelling – it’s at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo now and it will go to The Hague and then Germany and then the Louisiana Museum in Denmark.

I’m working on a new film that’s part historical and part political, but I’m still shooting it so I’m not ready to talk about it yet. It’s quite different in form from anything I’ve worked on before, but it is character driven like The Queen of Versailles.

What advice do you have for any wannabe documentary makers?
Follow your heart; follow the story that you are passionate about – because you’re the only one that can tell that.

Stick with it. When I was frustrated about how long this movie was taking to edit, my film teacher from college, who was actually my advisor on this film, said that when he goes to Sundance there are a lot of good films but about 75% of them are unfinished.

That really shocked me that sometimes we are finishing for a certain deadline or a certain festival or a deadline imposed from the outside, but each project takes its own time – so, stay with it until it’s done.

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