‘Generation Wealth’ Finds Hope Outside of the Corrupted American Dream

Generation Wealth poster

In 1988, John Carpenter made “They Live,” a science fiction horror film about a drifter who discovers the ruling class are actually aliens who have managed to conceal their existence and manipulate the human race into spending money and to “obey” them through subliminal messages in mass media. Years later, when Carpenter was attending a screening at the Egyptian Theatre, he described “They Live” as being his response to his horror at the Ronald Reagan years and his distaste at the increased commercialization of politics and popular culture in the 1980’s. When I was at a screening of “Big Trouble in Little China,” and I got to ask Carpenter the following question:

“You have said ‘They Live’ was your response to your horror at the Reagan years. With George W. Bush currently wreaking havoc around the globe, don’t you think this is the perfect time for a sequel?”

Carpenter’s response stays with me to this day:

“The 80’s never left us.”

Looking back, he was absolutely right. While I am a child of the 80’s and have a great love for that decade, it marked the start of America becoming an infinitely greedy nation as we strove to become very rich, deficits began to explode, and politicians began selling us on trickle down economics which promised that tax cuts on the rich would benefit the middle and lower classes. This proved to be a big lie, and yet politicians still try to sell Americans on it.

All of this went through my head as I watched Lauren Greenfield’s “Generation Wealth.” This documentary comes to us in 2018, and it proves once again how the 80’s still live on as we watch individuals try to become wealthy or at least gain the appearance of being rich. What results is a look at how the American Dream has been corrupted, the cost of greed, and the chance for redemption.

Greenfield is an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker, and “Generation Wealth” starts off with her narrating how through her 25 years of work, she discovers her work has pointed to one uniting phenomenon: wealth culture. From there, she investigates the various pathologies which created the richest society in the world, and she interviews several people who look to increase their bank accounts or change the way they look to where society will view them as sexy.

We meet Florian Homm, a former hedge-fund manager who at one time had a net worth of $800 million and ended up fleeing the United States to avoid getting arrested by the FBI. Watching him sit back on a couch while smoking a cigar with glee makes him look the modern-day version of Tony Montana from “Scarface.” Homm is never shy about just how much he loves money, and he laughingly admits how Harvard Business School didn’t train him to be an ethical businessman but instead to be “fine-tuned to rule the world.”

We also get introduced to Cathy, a bus driver from Virginia who travels to Brazil to get extensive plastic surgery which she charges to a credit card, the successful porn star Kacey who gained notoriety after Charlie Sheen paid her $30,000 for a days long party and drug binge, a young beauty queen who looks like a combination of Honey Boo Boo and JonBenet Ramsey, and former rapper Cliff (G-Mo) who we first celebrating the hip-hop version of the American Dream. They all want the best-looking bodies as well as all the money in the world, but as Greenfield says at one point, those who have everything never feel like they have enough.

I found myself getting sickened by the subjects Greenfield photographed and interviewed as it felt they were doing more damage to themselves than good to where they appeared, if not soulless, very empty on the inside. It proved to be a relief when someone like Chris Hedges shows up to put some much-needed perspective on what we are seeing as he compares America’s obsession with wealth to the end of Rome. At one point he even says, “Societies accrue the most wealth as they face death.” Can America be close to suffering the same fate? It certainly feels like it.

Greenfield doesn’t break new ground with “Generation Wealth” as Michael Moore already compared Rome’s fall with America in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and “The Big Short” was an entertaining and sobering look at the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Do we need to go through how greed has wrecked America in yet another movie? Oh yes, we do! This country threatens to make the same mistakes yet again as politicians still insist on selling its citizens on trickle-down economics.

One key character from the 1980’s whom Greenfield highlights is Gordon Gekko, the fictional and unscrupulous corporate raider Michael Douglas played in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” But while Stone intended for “Wall Street” to be a cautionary tale about the downside of unchecked greed, Gekko proved to be such a charismatic character to where he became a huge inspiration for those desperate to make it big on Wall Street. It didn’t matter how Gekko set a terrible example for them, these wannabes still looked up to him, and there is a good deal of him in many of the people Greenfield interviews here.

Greenfield to her credit she never judges any of the people featured here. She presents their stories objectively and never tries to manipulate us into thinking about them in one way or another. Whether you are intrigued or repulsed by the things they do, there is a sense of empathy I had for them as they become more and more human as the documentary reaches its final act.

When it comes to “Generation Wealth’s” final act, we see the results and repercussions of the actions everyone has made as they reach a plateau in their quest for money. Greenfield aligns their journey with the catastrophic financial crash of 2008 which left much damage in its wake. Seeing these people on the other side of it has them finding something absolutely priceless while others find tragedy and financial ruin. This proves to be both inspiring and devastating all at the same time.

“Generation Wealth” does lose some of its focus as Greenfield awkwardly inserts herself into her documentary. Is she also interested in being rich and wealthy? Is she well off thanks to her photography? It’s hard to say what she is saying about herself, but it does lead to some very amusing moments as one of her sons admits he knows the name of each Kardashian but not those of his neighbors, and her other little boy ends up inserting a sign in front of her camera as she films everything and anything. I don’t want to spoil the moment for you as it had me laughing endlessly.

Watching “Generation Wealth” kind of reminded of when I first saw “Doc Hollywood” which starred Michael J. Fox as a doctor intent on making tons of money as a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, and who later finds a more meaningful life for himself in Grady, South Carolina. But that was a fictional movie, and this one deals with real life, and I came out of it with more hope for the human race than when I went in. This documentary also shows how life is about the journey rather than the final destination. While I wanted to sit some of these characters down and force them to pay close attention to the lyrics of Digital Underground’s “No Nose Job,” it is worth watching their journey as, like them, we come to see what matters most in life.

With that, I leave you with the words Harold Perrineau uttered as Augustus Hill on the HBO series “Oz:”

“We think we know what we need. We spend our time figuring out how to get what we want, who can help us, who’s in the way. We make our moves and sometimes we get lucky. We get exactly what we want. And life gets worse. Simple truth #22, be careful what you wish for, brother. Be very, very careful.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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A Tough Pablove Run for Me

Pablove 2018 December 9 run

I have trained for the Los Angeles Marathon seven years in a row, and this marks the eighth year I have trained for it. Still, I am constantly reminded of how it doesn’t matter that I am a hardened marathon veteran because I can still screw myself up when it comes to training. This week’s run had us going 12 miles through Burbank and Glendale, and we even ran up and down Forest Lawn Drive which goes right past the cemetery of the same name. I point this out because the speed limit is 45 miles per hour, and it can be ever so easy to become roadkill like all those skunks which were left to rot on Highway 1.

I managed to get one maintenance run in this past week as Southern California was ravaged by brush fires which laid waste to the hills overlooking the 405 freeway, and they came very close to decimating the Getty Center. As a result, the air quality in the Los Angeles area was a lot worse than usual, and it’s never been great to begin with. John Carpenter made a movie years ago called “The Fog,” and I am still waiting for him to make the inevitable sequel, “The Smog.”

I keep telling people how there’s nothing like a hot summer day in December as the weather in Los Angeles has become unseasonably warm on a regular basis to where I am thrilled we start our runs at 7 a.m. in the morning. It also gives us a huge incentive to finish our runs before the sun rises all the way up in the sky as the heat only serves to slow us down and steal our energy.

After freezing our butts off in the frigid morning, we started our run and, as usual, I did my best to keep up with everyone else. It was around mile four or five when my fellow Pablove runners had vanished from my sight and left me in their vapor trails. From there, I just kept running and became more dependent on those walking breaks.

At one point as I was running along Riverside Drive, I passed by a tree where birds were squawking like crazy. It was like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” especially the one when Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor and everyone else are hiding in the house, and all you can hear is the furious sound of the flying beasts as they battle their way inside. I wonder how the residents of Toluca Lake put up with these birds as they serve as a desperately unwanted alarm clock on a Saturday morning.

This marks the first run in years I have done with this group which had us running up Forest Lawn Drive. We are always encouraged to run against traffic as we are far more visible to those driving their Honda Accords or Volkswagen Jettas at 45 miles an hour, at least, but I found myself eager to get to the other side of the road as I felt more in danger than usual. Like I said before, this street goes right past the cemetery of the same name, and this adds to my always heightened awareness of my own mortality and of the mortality of skunks who failed to look both ways when crossing Highway One.

But an even bigger challenge faced me once I arrived back at Griffith Park, going up the hill to the park’s back side. This hill can feel never ending. Once you get to the top, you realized you haven’t. All you can do is keep huffing and puffing as the grade increases more and more to where you wonder why God created hills in the first place.

After making it over the hill, I found myself taking more walk breaks to usual. It got to where I started yelling out “fuck” whenever I started walking again as I felt like I was failing myself and my fellow runners. I wanted to finish strong, but now I found myself almost begging for Coach James to give me a ride back to our starting point.

Nevertheless, I made it to the finish line even though it felt I liked I limped toward it. All I could wonder at this point was, am I even taking my training seriously? Am I risking failure in an effort to remind myself of the things I need to do? Will I ever be able to keep up with the other runners to where some will still be around waiting for me when I finally cross the finish line?

Well, let’s talk about what I will do before next Saturday’s run. I will do at least two maintenance runs of 30 to 45 minutes each, I will stay hydrated and increase my intake of electrolytes as they are more than just an R.E.M. song off of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi,” and I will stay away from the booze more often than I don’t. Granted, it helps to have a Jack and Coke, if not two, these days when Donald Trump wreaks havoc in the White House or on Twitter, but it does kinda get in the way of running multiple miles through Burbank and Glendale.

Nevertheless, I did cross the finish line, and this is all that really matters. I am not out to set a new land speed record, and any chance of doing so has long since passed me by. This is about running through the streets of Los Angeles and seeing how an event like a marathon can bring so many strangers together. It is an amazing sight, one which I hope you will all get to witness sooner than later. Having witnessed so many marathon runners going past my apartment ten years ago, it proved to be an inspiration and got me to put my running shoes on for the first time in years.

The Pablove Foundatrion logo

But more importantly, I am doing this in support of a wonderful non-profit organization, The Pablove Foundation. This organization, which is dedicated to finding a cure for pediatric cancer, recently held a gallery show in Los Angeles to show off the incredible photographs taken by the children, ages ranging from 7 to 15, whom are referred to as “Pablove Shutterbugs.” The photos they took are incredible, and I would love to take some classes Pablove offers to learn of their secrets. Shooting a photograph might be a simple thing, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Click here to see some of the photographs from the Pablove Los Angeles Gallery Show.

Tyler Peek a Boo Pablove photo

This photo is entitled “Peek-a-Boo,” and it was taken by Tyler who is 10-years-old.

In short, I ain’t giving up and I’m not throwing in the towel. There’s always room for improvement, and everyone will see this improvement next week, and that’s even if I still finish last.

FUNDRAISING UPDATE: With my fundraising and Facebook pages combined, I have now raised $280 towards my goal of $1,500 for The Pablove Foundation. The end of 2017 is rapidly approaching, so be sure to get those tax-deductible donations in before the ball drops in Times Square. With this disastrous tax bill going through the Senate right now, there will never be a better time to stick it to the man. Click here to see how you can make a donation.

Interview with Harry Benson and Matthew Miele on ‘Harry Benson: Shoot First’

The documentary “Harry Benson: Shoot First,” directed by Matthew Miele and Justin Bare, looks at the life and work of renowned photographer Harry Benson who shot and captured unforgettable images of many famous figures such as The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Donald Trump, and Hillary and Bill Clinton. What is especially striking about his photography is how wonderfully intimate and vivid his photos are. These are not just still images made to promote a new project of some kind, but instead are ones which show celebrities at their most natural and down to earth. Looking at Benson’s photographs today, it feels like you are going back in time and arriving at a place which feels so incredibly real.

I had the opportunity, along with Rama Tampubolon of the website Rama’s Screen, to talk with Benson and Miele about how this documentary came about and how it evolved from start to finish. Benson also told us stories of how he got the photo of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr who were in the midst of a pillow fight, and of the haunting images he captured of Robert Kennedy before and after he was assassinated.

“Harry Benson: Shoot First” is another terrific documentary in a year filled with them, and it is a must see for pop culture fans and anyone interested in photography. It opens on December 9 at the Laemmle’s Monica Film Center in Santa Monica, and it is also available to watch on Amazon Video, VOD and iTunes.

Please check out the interview above, and be sure to watch the documentary’s trailer below.

harry-benson-shoot-first-poster

Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures

Mapplethorpe poster

This documentary starts off with former Senator Jesse Helms on the floor of congress back in 1989 where he denounced the controversial photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Now Mapplethorpe’s work ended up pushing a lot of social boundaries with his frank depictions of sexuality, nudity and fetishism, and since he became known during the age of Ronald Reagan’s moral America, many saw him as nothing more than a shameless pornographer and refused to look at his photographs with any penetrating insight. What was on the surface bothered them, but like with any work of art it is about how the mind perceives it and of the effect it has on your perception of the world around you.

Helms told congress to look at the pictures as if they were done by someone possessed by the devil, but the HBO documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” invites the viewer to look at them from a less biased perspective and see how this artist managed to turn contemporary art into fine art. What results is a fascinating look at an artist who in some ways is more prolific in death than in life, and it is probably the most in depth look at his life currently available.

We get scenes featuring curators at The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art as they prepare to open a landmark retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work. Their intent is to look at him as a human being, and that intent is shared by the documentary’s directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato whose previous work includes “Inside Deep Throat,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Party Monster” (both the documentary and the feature film starring Macaulay Culkin). They dig deep into Robert’s past and never sugar coat his life for easy consumption.

It was very interesting to see Robert as a kid when he was considered the pogo stick champion of his neighborhood and somewhat unsurprising to learn he never really fit into any of the social circles in high schools (the great artists never seem to). Throughout the documentary we get to hear his voice from old recordings, and he says that he grew up in suburban America which he described as a good place to come from because it is also a good place to leave. He also admits he never set out to be a photographer as he took a course on it and hated it. And yet during his college years he found a creative spark which never left him.

“Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” also features interviews with various friends, family members and celebrities who all seem to agree Robert was a largely mysterious person who was always looking to get a rise out of people.  At the same time, his brother Edward said he could be quieter than anyone else in the room. Writer Fran Lebowitz even described him as looking like a “broken Cupid,” so it’s safe to say that many people viewed him differently. As the documentary continues on, it shows us a man struggling to express himself during a time where voices which differed from the norm were quickly chastised and silenced.

One of the documentary’s most fascinating segments comes when Robert meets up with singer Patti Smith and observes the time they spent together at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. This segment also takes us back to a time when the Big Apple was bankrupt, corrupt and looked nothing like the insanely expensive city it is today. The two of them fed off each other creatively and created art no one else ever could have, and Mapplethorpe even shot the photograph which became the cover for her first album, “Horses.” The fact that their relationship is cut a little short in the documentary is disappointing as it would have been great to see more of them here, and it could very well make for a great documentary of its own.

Both Bailey and Barbato also might have fared a little bit better had they given equal time to the methods Robert used to create his art instead of his personal life. Many of his photographs, including his famous “Man in the Polyester Suit,” are on display here, and while we get an idea of how he messed around with his Polaroid photos to create something startlingly unique, it would have been nice to see more of his technique in how he pulled certain photographs off.

Instead, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” spends more time than it needs to on Robert’s love life and his various lovers. Granted, hearing them talk about Robert does give us deeper insight into his psychology and how selfish he became as he got older. We even here Robert say at one point, “Life is about using people and being used by people,” so his self-centeredness is very understandable. But to hear people talk about him in this manner makes the documentary at times feel like a broken record.

However, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” finishes on a strong note as we watch Robert putting up his last solo show entitled “The Perfect Moment.” By this time, he had been diagnosed with AIDS which back then was a death sentence, and some described this show as being a “memorial with a living corpse.” Robert was only 42 years old when he died on March 9, 1989, but he looked more like he was in his late 60’s. In his later years he sought fame like crazy, and he soon became more famous in death than in life. The effect this final show had on the general public was profound, and it served to secure his legacy after he passed away.

Despite some minor flaws, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” is a compelling documentary which serves to look at the famous artist as more than just a controversial figure. Robert was a human being with problems like anybody else’s, but he always photographed what he loved and the people he loved to be with. He pushed all sorts of boundaries as he described art as being about “opening something up.” He certainly opened the world up to looking at things differently than ever before, and he remains a potent force in the art world today. Looking at his photographs now, one cannot help but wonder why certain parts of the human body are still considered more dangerous than a loaded gun.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * ½ out of * * * *