In one photograph, the German-born, Harvard-educated hedge fund manager Florian Homm, who made and lost a personal fortune of more than $800 million, poses in a German brothel that he once co-owned. In another, Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines accused of stealing billions from state coffers, sits in her Manila apartment beneath a gold-framed Picasso.
Later on, a 43-year-old Chinese billionaire Huang Qiaoling
is pictured walking from his mansion, built as a full-scale replica of the White House, to his chauffeured Mercedes S Class.
Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth will be published in May.
Dozens more similarly lavish and disconcerting vignettes fill Generation Wealth (Phaidon, 2017), a 504-page monograph by Lauren Greenfield and out on May 15. A photographer who has spent the last 25 years documenting wealth, class, and status symbols, she offers a glimpse into the spending habits of ultra-wealthy tribes: hedge fund managers in New York such as “Suzanne,” whom Greenfield follows for several years as she attempts to have a child; entertainment executives like Brett Ratner, who is shown on St. Barts with a platinum American Express card stuck to his forehead; industrialists such as Italian apparel billionaire Renzo Rosso, who shows off the home gym in his 18th century villa; and “time-share king” David Siegel, who, with his wife Jackie, would go on to become the subject of Greenfield’s documentary, Queen of Versailles.
Greenfield’s photos, accompanied by essays and interviews, kick off in 1990s Los Angeles at the moment Beverly Hills debutantes and Compton rappers were swapping cultural aspirations, and as plastic surgery was trickling from the purview of aging socialites down to image-obsessed teenagers. One Malibu teen, photographed at a pool party three days after her nose job, says: “Out of my 10 close friends, six of us got something done.”
Beyond these extreme examples, though, is what Greenfield describes as the “homogenization” of the global elite. Whereas 50 years ago, the world’s rich varied from country to country (if not from city to city, or street to street). Now, Greenfield said, “when you’re in St. Moritz, the Russians are mixing with the French, mixing with the British. All nationalities are welcome to share Champagne and whatever else, together.” In other words, the rich might not be like the rest of us, but they are—in this book at least—very much like one another.
Similarly, Greenfield discovered that high-end kitchens—what she dubs “appliance porn”—carry an appeal across oceans, cultures, and continents. “These modern kitchens with granite counters and commercial-grade appliances used to be in the most upscale of houses,” she said. “And then, during the boom, you’d see it in a lot of middle-class homes: the stainless steel stoves and so forth.”
Now, she said, commercial chef’s kitchens have somehow managed to become a prerequisite of homeownership. “I remember there was this one Russian woman whose husband was a real estate developer,” she said. “She had this kitchen out of Architectural Digest, and I said ‘Oh, what a beautiful kitchen. Do you cook?’ And her answer was ‘No.’”
Now that these status symbols have become ubiquitous, Greenfield said some groups, such as the new Asian rich, are gravitating toward such aristocratic pursuits as polo and sailing. “There’s an etiquette class in China, where people spend $16,000 for a two-week course where they learn how to pronounce luxury brands, eat caviar, and sit at the table like a Westerner,” she said.