This weekend, I watched the 2018 documentary Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield, which paints a vivid and depressing picture of modern society focused on chasing money—or the appearance of money—and what it provides, all with the goal of achieving achieve social status. Lauren profiles an array of very sad people from around the globe whose lives were ruined by their chase for fame and fortune—hedge fund masters of the universe…a porn star…a toddler beauty pageant contestant…rappers…a powerful businesswoman who lost her marriage because of her single-minded drive to have a child…and a mother from the Midwest who went into debt spending on plastic surgery so that she could feel better about herself. In the end, her own daughter committed suicide because of a devastating self-image problem. The film is incredibly powerful and incredibly depressing because of what it shows about the “rich and famous” behind the curtain.
Ironically, while Greenfield, a photographer and photojournalist, points her lens on these pathetic situations, she has spent her own life trying to prove herself “good enough.” Her parents were both Harvard educated—one a psychologist and one a physician. To measure up to her powerhouse parents…and in spite of feeling like they had abandoned her…Greenfield sacrificed time with her own children to pursue professional growth and accolades.
She is not alone. This is what baby boomers were raised to do. We were told we could have it all…that we could be anything we wanted to be…that we could achieve whatever we put our minds to. The feminist movement took hold, and there was no reason that women and men should not be equal. And then there was the Enjoli woman who could “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan” and, of course, look gorgeous while doing it. It wasn’t so much that the bar of perfection was being set high, though I guess it was—it was the casual presumption that not only could you have it all but that it would be easy to attain.
And yet, no one ever said there would be a price to pay for all that perfection.
Fast-forward 30 years, and we have more people suffering from stress and anxiety, not to mention eating disorders, than ever before. And we have a generation or two that have been raised by parents who live with the expectation that the world is their oyster.
The trappings of success became the expectation. No longer were bigger houses and nice clothes the reward for hard work. Instead, it was expected that everyone should have them. As the rapper G-Mo (née Cliff) says in Greenfield’s film, there was a shift in the 1980s about the American dream. It was no longer about discretion, hard work and frugality. It became about fame, fortune and excess. Everyone wanted it, whether they had earned it or not.
So here we are. A world full of expectations and presumed entitlements. The good news is that the Millennials and Gen Zs have recoiled somewhat from the deification of designer labels and bigger-is-better. They are not driven by excess, and if anything, they are recoiling from gross consumerism in favor of protecting the environment and reducing the carbon footprint.
What they haven’t regained, however, is the understanding that they have to sacrifice to achieve their goals…that having it all comes with a price tag.
No, we can’t have it all. It’s all about choices. Women can be in the C-suite, but they may have to sacrifice personal relationships or children. And for anyone who wants to jump on my statement as sexist, the sad fact is that in earlier generations men were able to focus on super-powered careers because their wives were able to care for their home and family. Women bear the children and are chemically linked to child-rearing. I had a fascinating conversation on this topic with family therapist Erica Komisar, LCSW, author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. I’m not being sexist. I am not against women being in super-powerful positions. I only say that there is a price to pay for all of that glory, so be sure it’s what you really want or else you may end up like the 40-something-year-old mother of a toddler with a big job and lots of money but divorced.
Plastic surgery may result in your killer body, but it won’t help you feel good about yourself. That will come only from hard work and self-reliance and knowing that you have given it “your all.” You can live in a fancy neighborhood, but mortgage payments are due each month. And you can send your child to the best college, but what if college isn’t right for that kid? There are all sorts of consequences from forcing someone into an environment that’s not right for him/her including the sad fact that more children than anyone wants to admit end up addicted to drugs or committing suicide because they were forced into environments that weren’t right and they don’t want to disappoint Mom and Dad. Did the parents involved in the recent college entrance scandal really break the rules for the sake of their children or for the sake of their own egos and bragging rights?
In his book, Can’t Hurt Me, retired Navy Seal and former US Air Force Tactical Air Control Party member David Goggins challenged himself with the question, Why am I here? as he dealt with the demons of his past and fought through the challenges of Navy Seal Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. The answer had to come from his core motivation and mission in life—not from a shallow desire to wear a uniform or make his mother happy. Goggins has readers ask themselves the same question when they face their own challenges.
Of course, this is the big question of life, right? Why am I here? It is a question that we all need to ask ourselves. What is my goal? What am I hoping to leave on my tombstone? And as we make choices daily, are we making choices that support that life’s journey or undermine it?
Lauren Greenfield’s documentary underlined the self-destructive choices that humans make every day as they search for deep satisfaction and that thing called “happiness.” With every frame of the film, it is painfully clear that our continued fascination with the rich and famous and our attempts to “have it all” merely reinforce the negative outcomes when we live our lives in false pursuit of image rather than in support of living a life worth living.
That life is not handed to any of us. It is created with every choice we make.