By Yu Funahashi.
We live in a materialistic society. We have materialistic outlooks, visions, and values, while we are consumed by materialism but at the same time tired of the shallowness of materialist values. Materialism is defined as “the belief that having money and possessions is the most important thing in life” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2018). Belk describes materialism as: “the importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions. At the highest levels of materialism, such possessions assume a central place in a person's life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.” (Belk, 1984b, p. 291, as cited in Belk, 1985) It seems to be hard to be freed from materialism as long as humans exist in the world. A photograph by Lauren Greenfield can open up some brief reflections on this matter.
What do we see in this photograph? In the center in this photograph, we can see a slender woman, Ilona, wearing an eye-catching blue sweater emblazoned with “I’M A LUXURY.” She is standing over her daughter, Michelle. Michelle is riding a fancy toy horse. We can easily understand that they live in a fabulously expensive house. The Black-and-white-themed apartment, the sophisticated décor, the sparklingly clean home, and the chandelier-lit room: everything in this house enhances the feeling of luxury - an ideal home that many people long for. Although Ilona and Michelle live a life surrounded by luxurious lifestyle products, they don’t look so happy. Ilona gives a cold look to her daughter, Michelle. Michelle also has an emotionless face. Although it is impossible to read their minds, we can guess that they might not be satisfied with their present situation even though they are blessed with wealth that most people envy. When people think about their own home, many might visualize their relaxing and personal experience and the warmth of their family’s smile or voice. This photograph tells us something about wealth: the pursuit of wealth, the concentration of wealth, and the symbol of wealth. On the other hand, the photograph displays a lack of human communication and personal warmth.
This photograph was taken by Lauren Greenfield, “an Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker and photographer who is considered a preeminent chronicler of consumerism, youth culture, and gender identity” (Nobel Peace Center, 2018). She has taken up ‘wealth’ as the main theme of her work for 25 years and portrayed not only people achieving fame and wealth, but also people who devote their all energies to display their wealth . Her multi-platform project called “Generation Wealth” was released in 2017. The project has been exhibited in the museums around the world, Greenfield has published a photographic monograph, and she has directed a documentary film. “Generation Wealth” shows us how powerful the values of materialism, celebrity culture, and social status in this modern world .
Greenfield says, “The thing about this project is: It’s not about the rich, it’s really about our aspiration to wealth, and our needing to show it off whether we have it or not.” She also points out, “The pursuit of affluence is never ending. It’s an addiction like any other.” (Nobel Peace Center, 2018). Her point of view reminds us about cupidity and greediness. Also, her project, “Generation Wealth” opens up to understanding of an ugly side of human nature: that the richer people become, the more they want. In addition, “Generation Wealth” suggests that having a burning desire for wealth always ends in emptiness. As Burroughs & Rindfleisch (2002) described, people might achieve well-being through the relationships with objects, however, “A substantial body of research suggests that highly materialistic individuals are less happy and more unsatisﬁed with their lives and face a greater risk of psychological disorders compared to less materialistic individuals” (Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002, p349). It could be said that no matter how hard people try to pursue material wealth, material wealth cannot enhance human well-being.
Through Greenfield's projects, we also realize that we live in an unequal world. We can recognize that our society has inequality of wealth, income distribution, wages, and opportunities. According to a study by anti-poverty charity Oxfam, the richest 1% owned the 48% of the world’s wealth in 2014, and they expect that the 54% of global wealth will be owned by richest 1% by 2020 . We need to think about how to face the challenges of materialism, and how to change our ways of thinking in terms of wealth.
 Fotomuseum Den Haag. (2018). 15 Sep – 03 Feb 2019 LAUREN GREENFIELD. Retrieved from https://www.fotomuseumdenhaag.nl/en/exhibitions/lauren-greenfield
BBC. (2015). Richest 1% to own more than rest of world, Oxfam says. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-30875633
Belk, R. (1985). Materialism: Trait Aspects of Living in the Material World. The Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 265-280. doi: 10.1086/208515
Cambridge Dictionary. (2018). Meaning of materialism in the English dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/materialism
Fotomuseum Den Haag. (2018). 15 Sep – 03 Feb 2019 LAUREN GREENFIELD. Retrieved from https://www.fotomuseumdenhaag.nl/en/exhibitions/lauren-greenfield
Generation Wealth. (2018). About “Generation Wealth”. Retrieved from http://www.generation-wealth.com/
Burroughs, E.J., & Rindfleisch, A. (2002). Materialism and Well-Being: A Conflicting Values Perspective. Journal of Consumer Research. 29, 348-370. doi: 10.1086/344429
Nobel Peace Center. (2018). Generation Wealth 13 Feb 2018 - 21Aug 2018. Retrieved from https://www.nobelpeacecenter.org/en/exhibitions/generation-wealth/