On Saturday night, spur of the moment, my husband, my daughter, and I went to see Sorry to Bother You, which starts out looking like an urban maybe-failure-to-launch comedy and then becomes, not just sort of Science Fictional, but profoundly weird. I recommend it. But I did walk out of the theatre feeling like “What was that?”
And then last night we went to see Generation Wealth, a documentary about… well, not so much about wealth, but about acquisition of wealth, about what drives us as a society to valorize possessions–and often the most vulgar sort of possessions.
Generation Wealth is a series of interwoven narratives about, among others, a former hedge-fund manager who is still on the FBI Most Wanted list for financial malfeasance; a porn star; a plastic surgery addict; a female business exec; a one-hit wonder; the son of a rockstar; and the documentarian herself, Lauren Greenfield. Some of it is funny, some of it is deeply horrifying. It ends… not on a hopeful note, exactly, but on a note that suggests that hope is not entirely out of the question.
The thing that seems clear, watching all these people, is that each of them has a space they’re trying to fill. The hedge-fund guy, for example, is very upfront about his determination–his need–to be the one who wins, where winning is having the most money. He tells a story about sitting with his wife somewhere in the Mediterranean, looking out at yachts in the harbor, and pointing. “That one, that one, or that one. Which do you want?” And his wife telling him “What I want is for you to put your phone away and have a nice dinner with me.” Ow. Apparently it took him years to get what she was saying.
Or the woman who went into debt to go to Brazil to get a tummy tuck… which turned into new breasts and a perky butt and a new nose and a neck lift. By the time she got back to the US, she was so deeply in debt that she could not afford to keep her kids with her. As near as I can tell, she may still be paying for it–and there was a deep human cost to her as well.
All of these things had me leaving the theatre wondering what I stuff into spaces in my life. What do I valorize? What do I feel I could never have enough of? Money is nice, but it’s there to make things go more smoothly; stacking up piles of 100s would not, I suspect, make me feel more secure. I would love to be beautiful, and have always felt that it was something of a moral failing that I wasn’t–but it didn’t bother me enough to go for plastic surgery or a rigorous exercise routine or even forgoing a good chocolate truffle. The things I would stuff into the interstices of my life are probably more intangible: I always wanted to be really smart, and really witty, and really accomplished: those were the values that my family venerated. I suppose that, to me, there is no upward limit to how smart or how clever or accomplished I’d like to be–but I’m sure there would be a human cost there, too. It is probably easier to save up and buy a gold toilet.
Wallis Simpson famously said “You can never been too rich or too thin.” I think the ultimate message of Generation Wealth is that Simpson was wrong. The question is, will our society figure this out before we do ourselves and the planet in?