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'Keeping up with the Joneses' has become 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians' — and it may be destroying our happiness

Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield shares what she’s learned from 25 years of research about toxic wealth in our culture.
Image: Khloe Kardashian
LKhloe Kardashian takes a photo with fans at 1 OAK Nightclub at The Mirage Hotel and Casino on March 20, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage)Denise Truscello / WireImage

When the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” was introduced to the English language in 1913 (thanks to a comic strip that ran for the next 25 years), the idiom became a way to express using the comparison to your neighbor as a benchmark for your social class or the amassing of material goods. It meant peering over your neighbor’s fence and coveting the television set in their living room, the expensive dress in their closet or the car in their driveway.

Today, our proclivity towards comparison and desire is stronger than ever, but instead of looking across the street, we are gazing into the lives of celebrities through our social media feeds and television sets — and setting a much different cultural standard for how we define wealth and ultimately measure happiness.

This cultural shift served as filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s inspiration behind 25 years of research on wealth, consumption and the insatiable desire to keep up. Over the past two and half decades, Greenfield has taken a deep dive into our culture’s obsession with wealth — and the consequences of constantly desiring more — which has ultimately culminated in a museum exhibition, a photographic monograph and a documentary titled “Generation Wealth.”

"'Generation Wealth' is a look at how the American dream has changed, and really how we've all changed with it,” says Greenfield. “We've gone from values of hard work and frugality and discretion, the values of my parents' generation, to a culture that prizes bling and celebrity and narcissism.”

Ultimately Greenfield is asking us to consider the question: Consumption, at the expense of what? NBC News BETTER sat down with Greenfield to get the answer to this question, talking how the desire for wealth is compromising our happiness and how getting back to the basics can help us all reclaim control of our mental health.

On the danger of consumption

Greenfield: Our desire to consume has consumed us, and that's why we find ourselves not having a moral compass. It leads to a cycle of addiction and dissatisfaction. And you see it with kids today, when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, the most common reply is, "Rich and famous."

In my work, I have had to look at extremes, or people in extreme situations, so that we can see what's going on all around us.

There's a therapist in the film who told me that that leads to depression and anxiety. Once we don't have a clear road map for how to live and how to make meaning, it becomes very hard to find that satisfaction and happiness.

On the new American dream

Greenfield: It really comes down to the media messages that we're getting. I think the American dream always had a materialistic component. But we used to have institutions like religion and family and the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, our communities, our schools … that would give us another set of values that might be a countervailing influence to what we got from our peers or from TV. But now, the influence of the media is so strong and so ubiquitous that we're just getting those messages. We used to compare ourselves to our neighbors, and that was certainly the old stereotype of the American dream, keeping up with the Joneses down the road. But now, we compare ourselves to the people we actually often feel like we know better, which are the people we know from TV. In the film, my own son says he feels like he knows the Kardashians better than his own neighbors. The research shows that the more we see those images of luxury and affluence, which have become much more dominant in the media, the more we think that's normal and the more we want those things.

On social media

Greenfield: Social media has just amplified it; we're always looking to compare ourselves with somebody else who has more, who looks better, who's at a better party. And not only is that unrealistic, but it's often fictional. People are curating these perfect lives, and just like a girl is going to be miserable if she tries to compare herself to a retouched model in a magazine, we're all going to be miserable if we're comparing ourselves to these unrealistic ideals.

We used to compare ourselves to our neighbors, and that was certainly the old stereotype of the American dream ... now, we compare ourselves to the people we actually often feel like we know better, which are the people we know from TV.

One of the people I talked to, Chris Hedges, says that social media is actually the end of real friendship, because real friendship is about breaking down the walls that we have between people and being vulnerable and our online friendship is all about presentation. Faking it till we make it, posing as what we want. A lot of people are realizing that looking at other people all the time is actually kind of depressing. I keep seeing people go off social media, or say they need to take a break. The more we catch ourselves wanting something out there, the more we need to wake up to kind of the wealth that is already there, that's all around us.

On the difference between ambition and obsession

Greenfield: There's nothing wrong with ambition — it drives people to a lot of great things — just like there's nothing wrong with money. But sometimes, if we're doing it out of a place of feeling like we need to be more, it becomes an addiction. There is a propensity in our culture that drives us toward that. Achievement can be really good. But what I've learned in this process is that balance is also part of the equation. And balance is what's needed to make you a better person, a better mother, a better daughter, a better father. And so I think we need to listen to the people around us and hopefully we can find a way to do our work, and make the world a better place at the same time.

On turning the magnifying glass on herself

Greenfield: What surprised me in making this film is that I became a part of it, too. I thought I would be in there as a narrator, but I ended up being in the film, and realizing that I, too, had my own addiction, that my passion for my work was also irrational in some way, because it took me away from my family to a really extreme degree. I end up also having to listen to how it affects my son, and try to understand where it comes from with my parents, and had to really wake up myself to the wealth around me. The change that happened as a part of this film is subtle. I feel like it was cathartic for me. I know it was also changing for my son. He talked about how us having this conversation on camera was a gift to both of us and our relationship. How it cracked open our communication, and I think I became a better listener to him, and he became more aware of me and the pressures in my life. With my mom, too; we had conversations about things that happened in my childhood that I was still kind of carrying around. And I think in the process, we also got closer. So in a way, the same kind of cathartic experience of the subjects in the film, in my interviews with them, I experience myself as the camera got turned around to me.

On working to find balance

Greenfield: My dad says in the film, “you never have the balance perfect.” And I think that work-life balance is a little bit of a holy grail. It's hard to get it quite right. You can't do your work really well if you're not completely focused on it, and I think you can't be a great role model to your kids if you don't have a bigger purpose in your work and your life.

One of the brilliant and tragic parts of capitalism is that it always sows our insecurity, makes us feel like we're not enough.

For me, the key is awareness, to not [have] tunnel vision in either of those things, but to really be aware of how what you're doing affects the people around you, and listening to them. For me, just knowing how my work affects my kids makes me change. Of course, I still love my work and I still travel and I still work. But it just makes me aware of the little things. Being present when I'm with them. Listening to them. Turning off the social media, or not taking the calls from work. It just changes the calculus about how you spend your time.

On finding the antidote to toxic wealth

Greenfield: What I learned from this journey is that the antidote is getting back to what matters, getting back to the values of family and community and the things that give our life meaning. In a way, it's the biggest cliché in the world: Money doesn't buy you happiness and all you need is love. What matters most to people and what really brings them happiness is their family, their friends, their community. Feeling like they're making a difference. Have meaning in their work and in their home life. Studies show that kids were happier after the financial crisis than before, because they had more time with their families. It's taking time to listen to yourself and your family about what really matters, because we know these things, and we hear them, but we just forget them constantly and need to be reminded. It doesn't help that all of the messages from brands and from the media is enticing us to buy more, have more, need more. One of the brilliant and tragic parts of capitalism is that it always sows our insecurity, makes us feel like we're not enough and we need to buy that product to be more beautiful or to be acceptable. And our identity now is so tied to what we have that we really need to find ourselves an identity that's away from what we have, before we can be happy with ourselves.

On redefining ‘wealth’

Greenfield: What I have learned through this journey is “wealth” is really about waking up to what's already around you and appreciating what you have. And most importantly, family, friends, community. For me, work is also a source of wealth, but I've also learned that balance is needed.

On looking at the extremes to understand the mainstream

Greenfield: It's important to remember that this film is not about the one percent. It's really about how those images of the one percent affect all of us. And what I learned in the process was my own complicity. I hope that when people go into the film, they see how they're a part of “Generation Wealth,” too. Some of the characters seem like they might be extremes. The hedge fund banker. The porn star. The child beauty pageant. And yet, in my work, I have had to look at extremes, or people in extreme situations, so that we can see what's going on all around us. A lot of times, the way we're affected by the popular culture is like the air we breathe. It's invisible. And so we need to see more extreme versions to see it reflected in ourselves. But really, the point is to understand how we're all part of this, and the kind of changes that we can all make to have a more sustainable future.

On getting back to tradition

Greenfield: We need to wake up to what's around us, and in a way, what we see in the film is the characters waking up to the matrix that they're in — and I'm part of it, too. If you can unplug from the media messages, great. If you can keep yourself out of the store where you know you're just going to want to buy once you go in, great. But exposure is a fact of our society. And so I think we need to build our critical tools to navigate that. Chris Hedges says in the film that it's culture, and authentic culture, that gives us the ability to criticize ourselves. And that's what we need: a clear eyed look at ourselves and why we're doing the things we're doing, and why we want the things that we do. And when we realize why we want them, sometimes we don't want them quite so much.


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