Lights dim, and the scene fades-in to a single spotlight illuminating the sultry silhouette of the newest iPhone, Balenciaga shoes, or even one’s that just appear dramatically similar. Emanating from an otherwise trivial object are some godly perceptions, metaphysical, and intangible designations. In recognition of society’s shift towards a sort of erroneous attachment to material objects, and commercial means, Karl Marx’s theory of the “Fetishism of Commodities” irradiates where real human value is substituted for a conventional monetary value.
On view at the International Center of Photography in New York City from 20th September 2017, to 7th January 2018 was Generation Wealth, a mixed media presentation by documentary filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield. Through the exposition of works over a 25-year span, Greenfield sought exploration of societal attachment to the construct of wealth, while zooming in on the presence and global development of an “American ideal,” comprised of documentary photography, film, and text, worked to illustrate the morph of this idealism into a highly unsustainable, assumption ridden obsession with wealth. Greenfield seemingly offers her own sort of analysis, of commodity fetishism: a deviation from the “American dream,” which gave way to a blind race to the most.
The striking, and at times nearly lurid, photographs were often met with an empowered, telling character, even in their apparent simplicity. Amassing the walls of lower Manhattan’s ICP, the 200 photos were also accompanied by first-hand anecdotes, and a documentary film, collecting perspectives of characters from assorted facets of society; their vulnerability lending an overwhelming poignancy to the body of work.
Emphasising the case and effects of consumerism, Greenfield distinguishes an “influence of affluence,” and an interwoven compelling desire for wealth. Greenfield’s investigation surrounds the effects of a blind yearning for the acquisition of wealth on structures of morality and ethics.
In the exhibition of a documented 2012 fashion show, Greenfield features the “toxic products, imperfect choreography, and human cost,” perpetrated by the fashion industry’s adherence to the affluent standard. We continue to replace and diminish holistic values. According to Greenfield, “the shift from the American Dream [went] from values of hard work, frugality, and discretion, to values defined by materialism, celebrity, and narcissism.”
For maintenance of these perceived wealth standards, society has emerged as sole status seekers, prone to deliberate modification of personal image, where truths are distorted in order to grasp impractical goals. Identity is acquired solely by image, and for many, devoid of moral sanctities and notions of truth. These have been replaced by a curtained desire to become the celebrity, the investment banker, the holder of inauthentic youth, and beauty, the latest designer collections, and whatever means necessary for their pursuit.
Who are the ones most hypnotised? We might question, recognising a frequent link with the Millennial generation’s instance toward idealism in the height of social media, and influence-based wealth systems, and the millennial’s proximity to them. But the depth of Greenfield’s enquiry expands globally, examining members of society from several classes, ethnic backgrounds, and ages, who all grapple with the same longing to meet these unrealistic expectations, as per the perpetration of consumerism by the fashion, entertainment, real estate, and banking commercial industries.
It’s never enough – the placation of wealth aspirations by continuing to buy. Beyond their allure, Greenfield exposes that no matter the number of things, they won’t bring satisfaction. President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech acknowledged a “human identity no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” “Generation Wealth” seeks to contextualise that 39 years later, we are still plodding in these precarious waters. Can we look away from a fetishized view of material things in order to more wholly connect to an authentic sense of humanity? Putting aside assumed value for things, the accumulation of them, and the people who have them, we may recognise our own value; enticing a more wholesome sense of purpose.
Words: Jessica Gianelli
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu