Fur enough: Elizabeth, 15, daughter of a Russian shipping magnate, dressed to appear in the Tatler Debutante Ball in Moscow, with a temporary Chanel tattoo. Photograph: Lauren Greenfield
When Greenfield started the photography series – which includes portraits of a 12-year-old Kim Kardashian – getting permission from parents to document their kids’ lifestyles sometimes proved difficult. “The parents wanted to be a little discreet – they indulged in the lifestyle but didn’t necessarily want to be seen doing it, but that has changed,” she says. “I went back again in 2007 and the parents’ attitudes had completely changed. A lot of times parents would be present at the interviews and they would be proud, saying: ‘Our kids are just like Paris Hilton.’”
“‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has become ‘keeping up with the Kardashians’,” she says as we tuck into seared tuna with caponata and gambas al pil pil. “Instead of wanting the slightly better house down the street, you want the mansion that Kim has. Reality TV and social media has made the lives of the wealthy more accessible, and it has made people hungrier for it.” The children Greenfield met were sometimes more aware of the potential damage created by free flowing cash than their parents. She recalls a 13-year-old called Adam who told her: “Money ruins kids, money has ruined me”.
Greenfield went to Adam’s bar mitzvah and was “blown away” by the scale of the production, including the go-go dancer. “Kids in his circle had to be seen to spend £50,000 on their bar mitzvah or they’re shit out of luck,” she says. Hanging out with Adam affected her more than most of her subjects, because even at 13 he was perceptive enough to know that something had gone wrong. She describes herself as friends with many of her original subjects, including Adam. But he wouldn’t allow her and the cameras back for her latest film.
Neither would David Siegel, 83, the real estate mogul she shadowed in The Queen of Versailles. “He hates the way the film ended when he loses the houses,” Greenfield says. “I don’t think David will ever let me back.” But Siegel’s third wife, Jackie, 52, is still friends with Greenfield and attended the premiere of The Queen of Versailles. “She thinks it’s the best thing she ever did,” Greenfield says. Early on, Jackie, a former Mrs Florida beauty pageant winner, told Greenfield: “You can never be too rich or have big enough boobs.” Jackie’s breasts, which have been augmented four times, fill the frame of one photo.
At the end of the film, Greenfield says the Siegels appeared to have learnt that wealth is not as important as health and happiness. But, having recovered from the financial crisis, the Siegels bought back the house and extended their ambitious plans. The house built on a man-made hill in a gated community in Orlando will have 14 bedrooms, 32 bathrooms, a 30-car garage, bowling alley, five swimming pools (three indoor, two outdoor), a two-storey cinema and a ballroom with capacity for 500 guests. The much delayed house is set to be finally habitable next year.
“They had this realisation that it was family that mattered,” Greenfield says. “Yet they are back at the house building bigger and better. I wonder, did we really learn anything from the financial crash, or did we just go back to the way it had always been? In the US and the UK we fixed a broken system and now the real estate market is even more on fire, the stock market is up and Trump is the president and tax laws are making things even more unequal.”
Numerous official reports detail the widening gap between rich and poor. UBS, the Swiss bank which prides itself on advising more uber-wealthy families than any other bank, published research showing that the super-rich hold the greatest concentration of wealth since the time of the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts at the turn of the 20th century. There are now 1,542 billionaires across the world, more than ever before. The richest 500 people alive increased their wealth by 23% last year, taking their combined fortunes to $5.3tn – more than twice the gross domestic product of the UK.
Josef Stadler, the lead author of UBS’s report, says his billionaire clients are aware of the widening gulf between rich and poor and fear that hard-pressed people might rise up and take direct action. “We’re at an inflection point,” he says. “Wealth concentration is as high as in 1905, this is something billionaires are concerned about. The question is, to what extent is that sustainable and at what point will society intervene and strike back?”
He says the “$1bn question” is how society will react to the concentration of so much money in the hands of so few. Anger at so-called robber baron families who built up vast fortunes from monopolies in US rail, oil, steel and banking in the late 19th century, an era of rapid industrialisation and growing inequality in America that became known as the Gilded Age, led to President Roosevelt breaking up companies and trusts and increasing taxes on the wealthy in the early 1900s. “Will there be similarities in the way society reacts to this gilded age?” Stadler asked.
Looking back on her work, Greenfield recalls being startled by ostentatious displays of wealth but says what might have been shocking then is day-to-day reality now. In her first few days visiting Crossroads, three boys asked her what she was doing by the school gates every day. When she told them she was working on a documentary about growing up in LA, they told her it was “all about money” and pulled cash out of their pockets, posing for the camera.
“It wasn’t until I developed the film that I saw that these 13-year-olds were waving $100 bills.”
Generation Wealth is in cinemas from 17 July