12.22.17 — They Have More Money

The rich are different from you and me. Yes, they have more money—and a show at the International Center of Photography, through January 7.

Not that Lauren Greenfield means it as a compliment. For twenty-five years, she has been pursuing the wealthy, in order to take their pretensions down a notch. With two hundred photographs, plus no end of interviews with the accused, she lets them damn themselves and the consumer culture that, in her view, sustains them. Yet she ends up falling for the glitter all the same, as “Generation Wealth.” Allow me, then, to pick up from last time on the theme of photography in nice bright color.

She ends up, that is, like F. Scott Fitzgerald in that famous exchange with which I began. If it ever took place, which I doubt, Fitzgerald was merely stating the opening of his most damning and memorable short story, “The Rich Boy” from 1926. With his reply, Ernest Hemingway may have had the last word, but he surely missed his rival’s clear-eyed portrait. He may well have been jealous—of that and of an entire paragraph that spins out as relentlessly as a human life. Still, he must have taken pride setting aside an American myth to describe lives scarred by war and seeking a greater peace. He would not have wasted time on shopping.

Greenfield does, because she sees it as the key to class divisions from California to China. She sees not the truly deserving who power the economy on behalf of everyone—to take seriously, for a moment, Republican ideology. Rather, she sees people born into privilege, basking in it, and anxious to sustain it, with an anxiety that demands the biggest house, the biggest wedding, the biggest bar mitzvah, and now the biggest solo exhibition. She pretty much reprises Thorstein Veblen and The Theory of the Leisure Class. Published in 1899, it may explain even now a country that fell for a wealthy fool in the guise of a populist. They could hardly hold his money, his vulgarity, or his several bankruptcies against him, since they aspire to ever so much more.

Not that ICP falls for the rich and powerful either. Since its move downtown barely a year ago, it has had shows of the surveillance state, political activism, and photojournalism on behalf of the angry and displaced. It has also been trying to keep up with the times, by incorporating new media. Greenfield does much the same, with documentary film as well as the pairing of photographs and text. She had a dedicated critic, like yours truly, jotting down quotes from the wealthy as fast as I could. Wow, are they ever juicy, and so is the pageant in her photographs.

At least it seems so for all of a minute. The next morning those quotes sounded repetitive and predictable, and so are the photos. One could slam them for cheaply condescending to her subjects, although no doubt they deserve it. One could slam her, too, for reducing their sins to lifestyle choices, as if they could atone by a vegan diet and fashionably clean closets. Her real problem, though, is that she falls for them completely—and mirrors their clichés in her work. As a certain president might say, this is hu-u-uge.

Her pairing of image and text comes right out of magazine spreads, much like that of Teju Cole, and she has worked for style magazines often enough along the way. So does the imagery—crisp and colorful, but bland and barely composed. Where Cole is after something profound and spiritual, Greenfield is after something profound and critical, but they are superficial all the same. As it happens, ICP will discard its investment in the Bowery for a move still further into the Lower East Side, where construction aims to include culture along with fancy apartments. It might consider its present quarters, mostly downstairs, a bargain basement by comparison. Luckily for ICP, the rich have more money.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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