The Toxic Dream You May Not Realize You've Fallen For
Lauren Greenfield has spent 25 years exploring what one of her subjects calls the "toxic dream": the pursuit of wealth, everlasting youth and, sometimes, fame. She's recorded images and stories of all sorts of people around the world, from a 60-year-old California paralegal who spent her way into homelessness, to celebrities and wannabe celebrities (like Kacey Jordan, the prostitute whose business enjoyed a boost after she spent a drug-fuelled 36 hours with Charlie Sheen). As the book’s editor, and as an old friend of Lauren's, I jumped at the chance to speak to her about why, even if we're not building a 90,000-square-foot house in Orlando like the subjects of her documentary The Queen of Versailles, we still might have fallen into the trap of wanting more than we can afford.
SW: You've documented hundreds of subjects: the German-born hedge fund wizard who's wanted by the FBI for fraud; strippers in Las Vegas; rap artists in Atlanta; Russian socialites. Why?
LG: I've often looked at the extremes as a way to shed light on the mainstream. Even though everybody says, "Money doesn't buy you happiness," I don't think that that's the principle by which people live. If you talk to kids and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they say, "Rich and famous," but being rich and famous is not a job.
Photo: Xue Qiwen, 43, in her Shanghai apartment, decorated with furniture from her favorite brand, Versace, 2005. In 1994 Xue started a company that sells industrial cable and has since run four more. She is a member of three golf clubs, each costing approximately $100,000 to join. Photograph and text © 2017 Lauren Greenfield (pages 416-7)
SW: How has what we want out of life changed during the past quarter century since you started out?
LG: We've gone from a culture that valued social mobility through hard work and education to a culture that values bling and celebrity. Now, it doesn't matter how you get the money, as long as you have it. Actually, it almost doesn't matter if you have it as long as you look like you have it.
SW: Still, a lot of people would say, "I'm not like that. I'm happy with what I have." Are there more subtle ways that we're all participating in this competition?
LG: We're living in this fantasy where we're comparing ourselves to celebrities, as if their lifestyles are normal. We watch more and more TV, and research shows that the more TV you watch, the wealthier you think other people are compared to yourself. And marketing is so clever. There's something for everybody. This minimalist trend in home décor allows educated, cultured, middle-class people to kind of justify their own materialism. Having less and giving things away is a goal, but what we see in a magazine like Dwell not only is very expensive to achieve but also requires a huge amount of maintenance, which for people with jobs and kids is not that easy. It's another way to sort of fetishize our environment. Design has made it so that the house we live in is not just a safe place to raise our family, which it was in the old days, but it's actually this...fashion statement. It's like a designer dress. It's really another side of the same coin.
Photo: Limo Bob in his office, Chicago, 2008. Bob owns a 100-foot limo that made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s longest limousine. Photograph and text © 2017 Lauren Greenfield (page 160, lower image)
SW: Do you fall into that trap?
LG: I stopped at Target the other day to do an errand, and almost unconsciously I picked up a cart, and before 10 minutes had passed, I had 10 items in my cart. At the self-serve checkout, an item came up as $52. My son said, "What is that?" And I said, "Oh, it's face cream." He said, "Put that back." I didn't argue with him because he was right. I was falling for some anti-aging face cream that I had not planned on purchasing. It's hard not to be influenced by these pressures in your daily life—whether you're actually buying or just admiring, or whether they're making you feel inadequate just by their existence.
SW: What have you taken away from all these stories?
LG: I still go into a store and want those things and still even buy them. But I do feel that if we spend a little time trying to understand the forces we often act upon unconsciously, it allows us a little power at least to choose: Do I want to give in to this or not?
Lauren Greenfield is an acclaimed documentary photographer and filmmaker. She is the author of Generation Wealth and other works about consumerism and young people.
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