Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has spent the past 25 years pointing her lens at some form or another of America and the world’s metastasizing wealth culture. Her breakout documentary, The Queen of Versailles, which she began shooting during the global economic recession, was a funny yet cautionary tale about the dangers of excess. A huge hit at Sundance in 2012, it felt like the last word on a troubling cultural movement of the past. But as the following 10 years proved, the story was far from over
In her latest feature-length film, Generation Wealth, Greenfield reframes her analysis about a culture out of control with multiple perspectives over time and across continents: an etiquette coach for the newly wealthy in Beijing, a 55-year-old German former hedge fund manager reflecting on his notorious career, a young porn star obsessed with plastic surgery, a former rapper turned middle-class father of six, a successful executive trying at 40 to have a baby by any means, a VIP lounge hostess (with teenager in tow), an early Toddlers & Tiaras star, an Icelandic fisherman reflecting on his swift rise and fall as a banker during the country’s pre-2008 boom, and even herself. Produced by Evergreen Pictures and shot in a variety of locations around the world with lead cinematographer Shana Hagan, the film is also Greenfield’s most personal film project to date.
We spoke to Hagan about her symbiotic working relationship with Greenfield and how she used a robust yet highly portable kit of Canon cameras and Canon and Fujinon lenses to capture the spontaneous wide and closeup shots the filmmaker prizes.
StudioDaily: When did you and Lauren first work together?
Shana Hagan: I first met her when she starting working on Thin for HBO in the late 90s. [It aired in 2006.] When she started shooting The Queen of Versailles in 2007 — another project, like Generation Wealth, that took many, many years to shoot before it finally got to Sundance — I came on and shot probably the first half of it. I established a really great working relationship with her then. Most of her work up until then had been primarily still photography projects that involved wealthy people. The concept of The Queen of Versailles, in fact, started from a still photo that she’d done of Jaqueline Siegel and her friends buying handbags. Some of my footage from that film is in Generation Wealth as well.
How did this film evolve?
We actually started talking about this project when we were shooting The Queen of Versailles. Lauren always had this larger idea about the concept of wealth, and she was also interested in eventually doing a retrospective one-woman photography show of 20 years of her work, with wealth as the central theme. The film as it is now grew out of a shorter film exploring the backstories of some of her more iconic images that she planned to accompany the retrospective, which ended up at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.
When did she know she had a much longer film?
SH: It was when we shot Florian [Homm], the hedge-fund manager, in Frankfurt. Lauren’s documentary filmmaking goes hand-in-hand with her still photography. She’s always documenting the moment in some way beyond the still photos, recording audio or video of her working or of her subjects. The backstories of her subjects have always intrigued her. But after we shot that Florian interview, which was in this palatial suite in a very lovely, old-world boutique hotel on a former private estate, Lauren knew a larger film was possible. We actually rented the suite, so the small crew of four of us stayed in the same place we shot in. Lauren wanted to show his opulence, and he certainly rose to the occasion when he lit up his cigar!
How did you light the interview?
We knew it was going to be lengthy, so we lit it so that we weren’t relying too much on natural daylight. We wanted to evoke a cloistered, private space, so we rented a couple of Kino Flos we put through a 6×6 silk, creating a big soft source for his key. I really appreciate that in Lauren’s still photography she makes great use of wide shots, which create a real character-defining sense of place. But she also loves really tight closeups. So the goal for me was always to emulate the style of her still photography. We talked a lot about this on Queen of Versailles, and we kept that up in Generation Wealth: finding the perfect wide wides, but also drilling down on the details in the closeups. I think those two types of shots work really well together, especially in Florian’s last scenes in the film, when he cries and talks about his wife and how he finally gained some perspective. That kind of epiphany can only really be told in a closeup. But he has such an expansive personality, we needed a balance. Those extreme wides capture that side of him and give him a sense of place.
You primarily used the Canon C300 MK II. Had you shot with it before this project?
I’ve always been a Canon girl. I had an A2E 35mm SLR camera. I went up to a 50D and ended up buying 5D and still have the Mark I and II. I had a MK III and currently own the MK IV. I had a C300 MK I when it first came out in around 2012, and I also now own a C300 MK II, which I love. I used three of these cameras on a project last week in Iceland, in fact!
What was your lens setup for Generation Wealth?
When we went to China, where we shot the abandoned mall and the etiquette coach, Sarah Jane Ho, we had the luxury of taking two C300 bodies with us: one was an EF-mount, and the other was a PL-mount. What that afforded us was the ability to have a very small EF rig, with L-series EF-mount lenses: the 16–35mm, 24–70mm and 70–200mm. Those are fantastic for a small footprint, say inside a car, or yacht or private plane. If we needed a slightly hardier rig, if we were doing a lot of walk-and-talks or longer lens stuff that we needed to have a little bit more of a servo on the zoom, we actually had the C300 PL fit with the Fujinon 19–90 mm and the 85–300 mm Cabrio zooms. This is before Canon came out with its cine-servos. But the Fujinon lenses made the smaller C300 really feel like an ENG-style camera. I like being able to have both kinds of rigs. During interviews, we often did two cameras: one a primary front angle and the other a side angle. We did that with Florian and with Sarah. If we couldn’t travel with the longer Fujinon Cabrios, we would just use the 70–200mm as the tighter side angle. It’s rare that a documentary project is able to afford having two camera bodies with different lenses, but it was fantastic to have that kind of flexibility on the road.
Were you happy with the resulting footage from each combination?
Certainly you can tell the difference between which lenses you’re shooting through, but the image is so fantastic. I love the sensor and it’s such a great image that it’s fairly seamless cutting between the two. That made it a pretty ideal when we were working in a two-camera environment.
Any significant roadblocks along the way, either physical or creative?
If you’d call it a challenge, we had a more creative challenge due to the fact that Lauren loves to shoot a lot and is also very spontaneous. As a cinematographer, I had to be ready for anything at any moment. And I love working that way, always being on my toes and listening. I think my ability to listen is probably one of my best skills is to be able to listen to the story and spontaneously respond to it. To have both of those builds of the C300 with us for the three weeks we were in China, the 10 days we were in Russia and the four or five in Frankfurt meant we were definitely up to the challenge. Another challenge was having to be very low profile when we needed to, like the time we were shooting in Red Square in Russia. Even our local fixers there warned us against bringing larger cameras because there were certain press restrictions. We literally just needed to grab a quick shot of St. Basil’s Cathedral and also a couple shots of folks looking into the windows of the newer high-end stores that line the square, like Louis Vuitton and Coach. We ended up shooting there with the 1D C and the 24–70mm and 16–35 mm lenses, which made it look like I was just taking a bunch of stills with a fancy tourist camera. But it’s 4K, so I just held it still and steady and got what we needed. It was a great backup to have in those instances.
Did you use the 1D C to shoot that eerie, empty shopping mall in China with the lone bicyclist?
Yeah, it’s the South China Mall, in Dongguan, and it’s one of the largest malls in the world. But it’s only one percent occupied and 99 percent empty. Somehow a developer got the money to build it but never developed a business plan. There are squatters up on the fourth floor. Of course they didn’t want us to shoot in there at all.
How did you manage it?
We snuck in! I brought the camera in a backpack and we had lookouts, and I ended up getting three or four shots that were exactly what we needed. We only really just wanted to document it. Lauren shot a few images there as well. It’s really remarkable and again, spoke to her sense of the decay that lurks beneath this obsession with immense wealth. But it’s also such a massive example of extremely poor planning.
When did you see the final cut for the first time and what was your reaction?
I saw it at Sundance with everyone else. I really loved it and thought it was fantastic to discover a little piece of Lauren that I hadn’t known before. Having worked with Lauren now for about 15 years, I loved that there were personal things about her that I didn’t know anything about. I thought it was very brave of her to include her family, especially her sons. The film is such an introspective look at her work and I was just so happy that she had gone there! She put in practice what we’ve always discussed: getting to the core of the subject’s backstory. That was the mission statement for us whenever we were shooting. And it evolved out of her own probing style as a still photographer. She’d done previous photo studies of many of the subjects we shot, including Florian. So when I watched the full film for the first time at Sundance I had a kind of “aha!” moment where I suddenly realized we were getting Lauren’s backstory. I learned a lot about her and thought it was a fantastic way to talk about the film’s issues of success and consumerism and family balance in a very personal way. Her younger son’s “Legacy” poem? Wow, it blew me away. It was so heartfelt. He’s so precocious and so articulate — she’s obviously doing something right as a parent. The parent/child relationship is such a universal story, but hers is particularly inspiring. She proves that you really can have it all if you work at it. I certainly want all that: I want a full career but I also want a family life and want time with my family and I want my kids to be as articulate as we all want them to be. But she’s an example of somebody who is striving to have it all and be successful and have the people around her, and her kids in particular, to be so successful. Somehow she’s done all of that. I think through her photographic examination of all of the issues that we, as a society, continually deal with, I think she’s also examining her own life. Her kids were at the premiere at Sundance, in fact, and people gave them a standing ovation. It was pretty brave of all of her family members to trust her in front of the camera so that they could open up in a way that is meaningful.
What’s her secret, as a director?
What I really admire about her is she’s not pushy at all when we’re shooting and she certainly doesn’t want to get people to say things or emote things they don’t want to. But just the way she approaches people allows them to open up. She really relates to people, and it’s evident in this film. It may seem like a simple thing to ask your mother a question about feelings of abandonment during your childhood on camera, but it’s not easy at all. It’s pretty remarkable that people trusted her the way that they did. I think the cut shows a certain respect, admiration and exploration of this personal journey.
Still, there are limits to how much you can ask of your family. And she didn’t like it at all when the they turned the camera on her!
Absolutely! When she’s shooting her family at home and her husband Frank takes the camera away from her and she grabs it back, you can tell she’s so uncomfortable. But she knows she has to turn that mirror to herself, and I think it drives home that sense of unease we all have examining our own lives.
Which were your favorite scenes to shoot?
I loved Florian’s interview. As I mentioned before, that interview, to me, was where her idea about wealth really blossomed into a film. She had had this idea to do a companion short film for her Annenburg photo show that is now touring the world. But I remember when we shot the Florian interview and we were on a break during that second day of shooting, she asked me, “Do you think there’s a film here?” I said, “Absolutely. Are you kidding me? There’s definitely a film here.” The story arc of this larger-than-life character really grabbed me. For this guy to go on and on and literally gush about money and then at the end of the day realize it’s not about money at all but time with family. The 180 that he took from the start of the interview to the end was remarkable.
Any other tricks in Lauren’s toolbox?
Often she has us roll even before the subjects come in and sit down, in case they talk on the way in. It’s a little trick we’ve used and Lauren likes to do a lot. She also likes to keep rolling long after she says cut. There are some issues ethically with that, of course, but as long your subjects are already getting mic’d outside, they know they are being recorded. A shot of Florian when he first walked into the room and sat down before we officially started was used in the final cut. In his case, he’s a character that owns the room, and Lauren and I talked about ways to see what his body language tells us about him. It was part of our plan all along to document these other non-verbal forms of communication. That also set up a nice wide shot and the second Canon got that tight angle and a variety of cutaways of the cigar in his hand. We some really good coverage on that interview. I also got shots of him driving his car in the rain with the 1D C. At the time I wasn’t sure if Lauren could use that, but the images of him driving in this contemplative mood were cut in very nicely with his later epiphany about how his wife just wanted him to turn off his cell phone and pay attention to her. I shoot tons of stuff and you never really know how it’s going to cut together, but in this case I really admire the way the editor crafted this very moving scene from those similarly moody elements. It was fun to shoot, even when I didn’t know where it would end up in the film. Letting Florian be himself, without putting too much artifice in the lighting or setup, was why those scenes work so well.
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