More is more: Making sense of America’s wealth obsession

new generation wealth 7
CNN  — 

It’s a Fourth of July party in 1993. An 18-year-old girl, lost in thought, sits by an aquamarine swimming pool near Los Angeles. A pristine white surgical bandage is slapped across her face, from eyebrow to upper lip. Her name is Lindsey.

“I had wanted to get my nose done since I was twelve,” she reflects. Most of her school friends had already had plastic surgery – breasts reduced or enlarged, fat removed, noses done. We can see from the photograph Lindsey has finally just got her heart’s desire. Three days after surgery, is she happy? It’s hard to tell.

The Californian photojournalist Lauren Greenfield, who captured this scene, has been documenting the American dream in its all permutations for the last 25 years or so. With a workaholic’s obsession, she has become fascinated by wealth and fame and by what she calls “the influence of affluence” – how people try to ape the way the rich live.

Her output has been prodigious: some 300 photo essays for magazines and newspapers across the extremes of consumer culture: “bling, celebrity and narcissism.”

Her archive of over half a million photos has now been condensed into 600 images in “Generation Wealth,” a 7-pound coffee table book bound seductively in gold silk, and retailing at a hefty $75.

It seems timely. As Greenfield notes dryly in her introduction, “We now live in a society where our highest public servant is a real-estate developer and reality TV star who lives in a penthouse on the sixty-sixth floor emblazoned with his name and decorated in a Louis XIV style, with ceilings painted with 24-karat gold, marble walls, and Corinthian columns.”

‘Partying on the deck of the Titanic’

"I had wanted to get my nose done since I was twelve," Lindsey told Lauren Greenfield.

The book is, frankly, almost too heavy to handle. Greenfield rests it on a table as she flips through its 500 or so pages, pointing out pictures.

Beauty pageant contestant Eden Wood, aged 6, is a diminutive vision in showgirl pink in 2011. Her dresses cost over $3,500. Serendipitously, Greenfield photographed Eden just as she was about to retire from competition (200 titles won) to concentrate on developing a lookalike doll and a reality TV show called “Eden’s World.” (If so inclined, you can check out the 2012 trailer online. “I am Eden Wood, diva!” she squeaks.)

On several pages, Canadian socialite (the American dream gone international), philanthropist and billionaire’s wife Suzanne Rogers, aged 40, is into shoes and Hermes handbags, photographed at home in Toronto in 2010, standing wide-eyed and beaming in her “seasonal” closets. Every shoebox comes with a photo of the shoe inside for easy identification. Suzanne’s style icon (in 2010 at least) was Truly Scrumptious from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” (And who am I to mock? How many men have fantasized about being James Bond, another Ian Fleming creation?)

The men flaunt their wealth in our faces. At a music awards ceremony in Los Angeles in 2004, rapper and record producer Lil Jon bares his teeth, central incisors wrapped in a diamond and platinum grill reportedly worth $50,000.

On holiday in St. Barts, 29-year-old Brett Ratner, director of the “Rush Hour” franchise, looks like he’s just won the lottery, his grin is as wide as the platinum Amex card stuck to his forehead. His buddy fans a thick wad of $100 bills right in front of Greenfield’s lens.

Greenfield says that it wasn’t until the financial crash in 2008 that she realized the underlying theme of her work.