Generation wealth: how the modern world fell in love with money

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Documentary photographer Lauren Greenfield was trying to form trusting relationships with members of a Mayan tribe in Mexico in the early 1990s when she picked up a discarded copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. Before she’d finished the cult novel – which charts the parties, drug taking and sex lives of rich college kids in Los Angeles – Greenfield had decided to swap photography subjects from the Maya of Chiapas to the rich kids of her home town.

A quarter of a century later, Greenfield has amassed 500,000 images of the often absurd lives of the wealthy. The highlights – including a picture of go-go dancers hired for a 13-year-old’s bar mitzvah – are published by Phaidon in a £60 2.5kg tome called Generation Wealth. An accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary film is released in the UK next week.

Greenfield introduces us to characters all motivated by the accumulation of wealth. “No matter how much people had, they still wanted more,” Greenfield says of her subjects. We meet Florian Homm, a hedge fund manager living in self-imposed exile in Germany to avoid extradition to the US where he has been sentenced to 225 years in jail. Smoking cigars and dripping in gold, Homm, who became known as “the antichrist of finance” for ripping off his investors for hundreds of millions of dollars, tells Greenfield that morality changed in the 80s. “The value system changed completely. It wasn’t about who you are, but about what you are worth… Morals are completely non-productive in that value system.”

As his hedge fund was imploding during the financial crisis of 2008, Homm, now 58, fled the €5m Majorcan villa he shared with a 27-year-old Russian lingerie model. With $500,000 stashed in his underwear and a humidor in hand, Homm boarded a plane to Colombia and disappeared for five years. We learn that he used his fortune to buy his son, then 15, the services of a Dutch prostitute. Homm was later arrested at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

One of the photos that best sums up Greenfield’s work is of the DJ, rapper and producer Lil Jon flashing a smile showing $50,000 worth of diamond and platinum dental work. There’s also the former porn star Kacey Jordan, who received $30,000 to attend a sex party at Charlie Sheen’s home. Jordan tells Greenfield of seeking greater wealth through extreme sex, which may have made her temporarily wealthier but didn’t make her happy. She made numerous suicide attempts, and ends the film in the same dead-end job she had before starting porn.

Then there’s Eden Wood, six, a beauty pageant princess and star of reality TV show Toddlers & Tiaras, who tells Greenfield “My favourite princess is me” and says beauty means “that I get money, and I’ll be a superstar.”

Greenfield says the intimacy she shares with her subjects at their most vulnerable led her to consider the impact her obsession with their lives has had on her own family, and turns the camera on her sons, mother and husband. Her 16-year-old son Noah tells her: “I got used to growing up without you around. The damage has been done.”

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