Are Trump’s Policies Hurting Long-Term US Growth?

Kenneth Rogoff

CAMBRIDGE – President Donald Trump regularly thumps his chest and claims credit for each new uptick of the fast-growing US economy. But when it comes to economic performance, US presidents have considerably more influence over long-term trends than over short-term fluctuations.

To be sure, Trump’s tax cuts and spending hikes have provided some extra short-term stimulus. So too, apparently, have foreign buyers of US products such as soybeans, who are rushing to stock up before the tariff war fully heats up. Still, it is not easy to speed up a $20 trillion economy, even by running a budget deficit of nearly $1 trillion, as Trump’s administration is doing. In fact, short-term fluctuations in business inventories have arguably held down growth as much as other factors have temporarily propped it up.

In a cantankerous political environment, it is not easy to think about the long term. But, thanks to the magic of compound interest, measures that marginally raise long-term growth matter a lot. For example, the transportation deregulation policies of President Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s set the stage for the Internet retail revolution. President Ronald Reagan’s massive tax cuts in the 1980s helped restore US growth in the ensuing decades (but also exacerbated inequality trends). And President Barack Obama’s efforts (and before him President George W. Bush’s) to contain the damage from the 2008 financial crisis underpin the strong economy for which Trump wants to take full credit.

What will be the cumulative effect of Trump’s economic policies on the economy ten years from now? Political ruckus aside, the jury remains out.

Let’s start with the likely positive side of the ledger. The end-2017 corporate tax reform was one of those rare instances where the US Congress comprehensively streamlined and improved the US’s Byzantine tax system, though the corporate tax rate should have been set at 25%, not 21%.

Obama would likely have been very happy to pass a similar bill. But, during his presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress insisted that any proposal had to be “revenue neutral” even in the short term, which is a tough political hurdle for any fundamental tax reform. Trump’s efforts to scale back regulation, particularly on small and medium-size businesses, are probably also a plus for long-term growth, reversing some excesses that crept in at the end of Obama’s term (though Trump is throwing out good regulations with bad ones).

One little-noticed area where the Trump administration seems to be trying out fresh thinking is the retraining of displaced workers and the improvement of vocational training at the high-school level. In principle, technology and big data allow the federal government to help provide better information to parents and workers on what skills are most in demand, and well as the geographic location of jobs.

The president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, is spearheading the effort. While it is easy to be cynical (some say the new program is just an excuse to cut funds from existing retraining programs), the idea that digital platforms can massively improve re-education and training is a good one.

But while the Trump administration has strengthened the US economy’s long-term growth potential in some ways, the other side of the ledger is rather grim. For starters, a wide range of studies – from the work of the late economist David Landes to more recent research by MIT’s Daron Acemoglu and the University of Chicago’s James A. Robinson – find that institutions and political culture are the single most important determinants of long-term growth. Recovery from the damage Trump is inflicting on institutions and political culture in the US may take years; if so, the economic costs could be considerable.

Moreover, in accordance with the administration’s disdain for science, the proposed budgets for basic research, including for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, were reduced sharply (fortunately, the US Congress rejected the cuts). And anti-trust enforcement, needed to counter excessive monopoly power in many parts of the economy, is essentially dormant. That will exacerbate inequality over the long term; Trump’s coal mines and trade tariffs are at best band-aids on a bullet wound.

Last, but not least, many of the regulations that Trump is targeting ought to be strengthened, not eliminated. It is hard to imagine that gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement are helpful for long-run growth, given that the costs of cleaning up pollution later vastly exceed the costs of mitigating it today.

As for financial regulation, the reams of new rules adopted after the 2008 financial crisis have been a dream come true for lawyers. Rather than try to micromanage banking, it would be far better to ensure that shareholders have more “skin in the game,” so that big banks are more inclined to avoid excessive risk. On the other hand, neutering existing legislation without putting anything adequate in its place sets the stage for another financial crisis.

So, although the US economy is indeed growing rapidly, the full extent of Trump’s economic legacy might not be felt for a decade or more. In the meantime, should a downturn come, it will not be Trump’s fault – at least according to Trump, who is already gearing up to blame the US Federal Reserve for raising interest rates and ruining all his good work.

Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University and recipient of the 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics, was the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2003. The co-author of This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, his new book, The Curse of Cash, was released in August 2016.

Global economy

Ten years after the financial crisis

The patient is in remission, not cured

WHEN asked how he went bankrupt, one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters replies: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” That’s rather how the crash was for the world. There was an extended build-up, with cracks in the system emerging during the course of 2007. Then there was the sudden shock, when Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008 and the global banking system teetered on the edge. The tenth anniversary of that frightening moment approaches.

There were some impressive takes from authors in the immediate aftermath of the turmoil, such as Andrew Ross Sorkin’s “Too Big to Fail” and Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short”, which was made into an Oscar-winning film. “Inside Job”, a documentary, was a scathing attack on the culpability of the finance industry for the crisis. And a new adaptation of a three-part play about the history of Lehman has just opened at the National Theatre in London.

Adam Tooze, a historian noted for his works on the interwar period, is aiming to be less entertaining than authoritative: he takes on the financial and economic history of the last decade in a monumental tome of nearly 700 pages. Yet with the events it covers so recent and so dramatic, the book is as much reportage as historical analysis.

Four big themes emerge from Mr Tooze’s account of the post-2008 era. The first was the immediate post-crisis response, in which the banks were rescued and both the monetary and fiscal taps were loosened. The second was the euro-zone crisis, which hit Greece and Ireland hardest, but also affected Portugal, Italy and Spain. The third was the shift in the developed world after 2010 to a more austere fiscal policy. The fourth was the rise of populist politics in Europe and America.

Mr Tooze sides with most economists in taking the view that the immediate post-crisis response was necessary, but unfortunate in that executives in the banking industry paid too low a price for their folly; that Europe was slow and narrow-minded in dealing with the peripheral countries; and that the switch to austerity was a mistake. Taken together, the backlash against bankers, frustration with EU governments and the impact of austerity led to the rise of populism, the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote.

A big part of the problem, as the author points out, was a failure of political leadership.

European politicians initially dismissed the crisis as an American problem, generated on Wall Street, even though Europe’s banks also had balance sheets stuffed with dodgy loans.

Meanwhile in America, the Bush administration got its crisis measures through Congress only with support from Democrats, but bipartisanship stopped the moment Barack Obama took office.

Perhaps the most dangerous failure, though, lies in the unwillingness to deal with problems which lie at the heart of the system and persist today. The finance sector, which caused the crisis, looks remarkably unaltered. Banks may now hold more capital and their bonuses are now tied to longer-term performance. But bonuses are still very high; the average payout on Wall Street last year was $184,220, just shy of the 2006 record. Scandals over banks’ bad behaviour, in areas such as price-fixing, money laundering and mis-selling continue to come to light.

Anyone who fell asleep in 2006 and woke up to look at the financial markets today would have no idea there had ever been a crisis. Share prices in America have repeatedly hit new highs and valuations have been surpassed only in the bubble eras of 1929 and 2000. The interest rates paid by governments and corporations to borrow money are very low by historical standards.

In global terms, the amount of debt relative to GDP is about as high as it was before the crisis.

As the author points out, it is far from clear that governments will be willing to take decisive action when the next crisis hits.

The debate about macroeconomic policy goes on in much the same way as it always has. Those who believe that governments can afford to borrow and spend more are still arguing with those who think that debt is already too high. Those who want central-bank policies to return to normal (higher rates, no more purchases of government bonds) are still arguing with those who believe that premature monetary tightening will damage a still-fragile economy.

The big change has been in the public mood. The idea that markets, left to their own devices, will efficiently and fairly allocate resources had gained adherents in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Centre-left governments, such as Tony Blair’s, were happy to leave the financial markets to get on with it. Now those middle-ground politicians are out of office, as voters peel off towards the far-left and nationalist right.

Even the Republican Party in America has swallowed its free-market instincts and is tolerating President Trump’s protectionist measures and threatening behaviour towards firms he takes against. Many British Conservatives have been overtly hostile towards those business leaders who express fears about Brexit. The idea that trade makes everyone better off in the long run is no longer universal; indeed Mr Trump sees it as a zero-sum game. These views are showing up in the numbers: global trade has stopped growing much faster than GDP, as it did before the crisis.

This change of mood raises fears about what will happen when another storm hits the world economy. The level of co-operation that occurred in 2008 and 2009, such as when America’s central bank made dollars available to its cash-strapped European counterparts, may not be easy to achieve next time around.

Tomorrow’s chroniclers will be grateful for Mr Tooze’s assiduous research. He leaves no mortgage-backed security uncovered, no collateralised debt obligation unexamined in his effort to produce the most comprehensive account of this complex and gripping subject. The general reader might find it a bit of a slog. It is not that the author cannot see the wood for the trees, more that the forest is so large and dark that it is easy to get lost. Sometimes the broader themes simply get overshadowed by an account of another round of cliffhanger meetings.

Mr Tooze ends by comparing events today with those in 1914, when the world sleepwalked into conflict. But arguably it is the interwar period that is the most pertinent parallel. The armistice ended the first war but the tensions that generated the first conflict simmered and finally exploded once more.

For policymakers, another deadly metaphor is perhaps more appropriate. Central banks brought a global economic heart attack to an end by performing emergency surgery. But the patient has gone back to his old habits of smoking, heavy drinking and gorging on fatty foods.

He may be looking healthy now. But the next attack could be even more severe and the medical techniques that worked a decade ago may not be successful a second time.

Speeding through the doldrums

Brazil’s banks, profitable whatever the economic weather

The economy is sluggish, but banks are coining it

BRAZIL’S economic weather tends towards extremes. During the 1980s and early 1990s hyperinflation raged. From late 2014 to late 2016 GDP shrank by 7.7%, its longest contraction ever. Conditions are now enervatingly calm. GDP grew by just 1% last year, and in June the central bank cut its growth forecast for 2018 from 2.6% to 1.6%. A truckers’ strike in May and uncertainty about the outcome of elections in October have curbed economic activity, weakened the currency and pushed up government-bond yields.

Yet the country’s big private-sector banks have prospered regardless. In the recession, neither Itaú Unibanco nor Bradesco, the two biggest, saw their return on equity (RoE, a measure of profitability) fall below 15.9%. On July 30th Itaú reported net income for the first half of 2018 of 12.5bn reais ($3.3bn), and an RoE of 20.1%. A few days earlier Bradesco and Santander, the local arm of a Spanish lender, reported RoEs in the high teens. Most European banks are stuck in single digits. As the central bank slashed its interest-rate target, the Selic, from 14.25% in October 2016 to a record low of 6.5% in March this year, some analysts predicted a squeeze on profits. It hasn’t happened yet.

The resilience of Brazil’s banks reveals much about the way the economy functions, not all of it good. Back when inflation was “1½% a day”, says Candido Bracher, Itaú’s chief executive, banks were forced to become efficient at transferring and managing money. Now they operate in a financial market riddled with other distortions. Some hurt their profits; others puff them up. Public-sector banks have a big and privileged role, which both constrains their private-sector competitors and shields them from risks, like some lending to the government’s favoured sectors.

All of this means that lending, especially to consumers and small firms, is lower and more expensive than it should be. Although voters are worrying mainly about corruption, crime and unemployment, the winner of the presidential election will have to consider how to make banking a more normal business. Indeed, that is already quietly happening.

The market’s most striking features are the dominance of a few banks—strengthened in the past two years by the retreat of America’s Citigroup, which sold its consumer business to Itaú, and Britain’s HSBC, which sold to Bradesco—and the state’s importance as both supplier and regulator of credit. Three private-sector lenders and three public ones—Banco do Brasil, of which the government owns 59%, Caixa Econômica Federal, a savings bank, and BNDES, a development bank—account for 82% of banking assets and 86% of loans. Regulations steer almost half of loans to favoured purposes, funded by private savings and the state. Interest rates on earmarked lending average 8.9%, according to the central bank. On the unrestricted remainder, they can be sky-high. They average 20.5% for companies and 45.8% for households. On personal loans, credit cards and overdrafts they run well into three figures.

The banks insist that wide spreads reflect not a cosy oligopoly but the high risk of default and the difficulty of pursuing debtors through slow, unsympathetic courts. Regulation also plays a part: a ban on overdraft fees inflates interest rates.

A recent study by the central bank suggests that the banks have a case. It ascribes 37% of spreads to the cost of default, 25% to administrative costs, 23% to taxes and only 15% to banks’ margins. Spreads have narrowed as the Selic has declined. Yet the critics have a point, too. Tony Volpon, an economist at UBS and a former central banker, estimates that consumers pay around 20 percentage points more than they should, given the low Selic, declining defaults and banks’ RoEs. Big companies’ borrowing costs, by contrast, seem “about right”.

That may be because corporations can shop around more easily than individuals. Years of high inflation have accustomed Brazilian consumers, by contrast, to buying goods in instalments, with hefty borrowing costs in effect built into prices.

Buying on credit is so dicey

Market forces and government actions are making banking more competitive. Entrants fired by digital technology and unencumbered by the costs of branch networks (including tight security) are trying to upset the incumbents. Banco Inter may clock up 1m customers for its fee-free account by September. Nubank has pushed on from credit cards into savings. Creditas is offering loans secured on houses and cars at far lower rates than on unsecured credit. (Most Brazilian homeowners, explains Creditas’s boss, Sergio Furio, have no mortgage, giving them room to borrow.) Valor Econômico, a newspaper, has reported that the central bank will restrict Itaú to a minority stake in XP Investimentos, a broker that has been a thorn in banks’ sides which Itaú wants to buy.

The central bank is also trying to nudge down borrowing costs. Last year it obliged banks to switch customers who repeatedly roll over credit-card debt to cheaper loans. It recently eased some reserve requirements on banks.

The expansion of lending by state banks at ruinous, subsidised rates under Dilma Rousseff, president for five years until her impeachment in 2016, has been reversed under her successor, Michel Temer. BNDES has cut disbursements from 188bn reais in 2014 to just 71bn reais, and has introduced higher fixed and floating rates linked to the market. Dyogo Oliveira, its head, says it has switched lending from big companies to infrastructure and smaller firms. Banco do Brasil has cut 10,000 jobs and raised its RoE from a paltry 4% in late 2016 into double figures.

Removing subsidised lending and other distortions, argues Arthur Carvalho of Morgan Stanley, should have an extra, macroeconomic benefit. It should enable the Selic to be lower, other things being equal. The link between monetary policy and the interest rates paid by businesses and households would also be tighter. And if the next president is serious about getting Brazil’s public finances under control, and long-term interest rates fall, investment and growth should at last pick up. A narrower gap between long- and short-term rates would squeeze banks’ margins. But demand for credit would rise—and a stronger economy would mean faster sailing for all.

Follow the Money (Then Take a Picture)

With “Generation Wealth,” the filmmaker Lauren Greenfield looks back at 30 years of chronicling the rich — and predicting our cultural future.

By Kurt Soller

Lauren Greenfield has become America’s foremost visual chronicler of the plutocracy — and those who hope to join its ranks.CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

Perhaps because she has spent her career watching the rich, the photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield is herself rich to watch. At a party after the New York premiere of her new documentary — “Generation Wealth,” about the perils of capitalism — Ms. Greenfield was wired, welcoming and constantly working. She snapped pictures of the well-heeled crowd as she hugged her way around the room, occasionally misplacing a glass of white wine, in a churn of compliments and gossip.

Ms. Greenfield, 52, paused to note that one prominent guest had left the festivities early: Jacqueline Siegel, the star of her best-known documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” about the construction of a $100 million house amid last decade’s financial crisis. Ms. Greenfield observed that in the intervening years, Ms. Siegel’s bosom seemed to have grown inexplicably, much like the national economy. “It’s a metaphor,” Ms. Greenfield said, “for the excess of the new American dream.” (Through a spokesman, Ms. Siegel, a self-professed patron of cosmetic procedures, denied that she has recently augmented her breasts.)

Over the last 30 years, Ms. Greenfield has become America’s foremost visual chronicler of the plutocracy, and those who hope to join its ranks. Her ultra-saturated, up-close, unsparing images have appeared in the pages of The New York Times Magazine, GQ and The New Yorker, as well as museum exhibitions and theatrical documentaries. Ms. Greenfield’s lens has fallen on affluent teens playing hooky, rappers and the strippers they shower $100 bills on, investors in exile, hedge-funders in denial, Iceland’s teetering banking system, abandoned mansions in Dubai and countless other icons of the world’s mounting financial inequality..
   Admiring a jeweled tiara at the Turandot restaurant in Moscow in 2012.CreditLauren Greenfield

In an interview in July, Ms. Greenfield noted that critics have occasionally dismissed her work as marginal. And yet her fascination with materialism has often placed her ahead of the cultural curve. In 1992, she photographed bored teenagers at a fancy Los Angeles school dance; two of them were the then-unknown Kim and Kourtney Kardashian. In 2007, Ms. Greenfield began work that eventually led to “The Queen of Versailles,” putting her in an ideal position to document the global housing crash.
Even the election of a reality-show celebrity as commander-in-chief is a “weird validation of what I’ve been looking at and why it’s important,” Ms. Greenfield said. “When Kim Kardashian was photographed with Donald Trump in the White House,” she added, referring to an Oval Office meeting that took place in May, “it looked like it could have been an ad for my movie.”
Arriving in theaters nationwide on Aug. 3, “Generation Wealth” is a 105-minute collage of a documentary that weaves together still images, news clips, original interviews and footage of Ms. Greenfield’s own family. It argues that the unceasing pursuit of fame and fortune has “become the new American dream” (it’s a favorite phrase), replacing the Horatio Alger allegory of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

Ms. Greenfield is well aware that she didn’t invent this notion. In a gold-hued, 503-page monograph also titled “Generation Wealth” that Phaidon published in 2017, Ms. Greenfield quotes the writer Fran Lebowitz: “Oh please, Americans do not hate the rich; they want to be them. Every American believes that they are the impending rich, and that will never change.”

Ms. Greenfield began work on the documentary in 2014 after performing “an archaeological dig into my own work” — re-examining more than 500,000 images and 650 hours of audio/video footage archived at her Venice, Calif., home. She and her husband-slash-co-producer, Frank Evers, pitched the project to Amazon Studios. “Lauren had all of this material, so they saw a through line from the Reagan ’80s to Trump, with her as our narrator and guide,” Mr. Evers said. 
Amazon turned out to be a cosmically appropriate partner. On the same day that “Generation Wealth” had its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in July, the company’s chief executive officer, Jeff Bezos, became “the richest man in modern history,” according to Bloomberg, with an estimated net worth of $150 billion.
Infiltrating the ‘Undercover’ Rich

Ms. Greenfield herself isn’t particularly rich, and she seems determined not to absorb the aspirational codes she has spent her life decrypting. Over lunch in July at Freds, the restaurant on the top floor of Barneys New York (not her idea, she’d like to note), she ordered a salad with canned tuna in lieu of fresh. She dressed straightforwardly in a black T-shirt, her Gucci eyeglasses the only suggestion of status. When her salad arrived, Ms. Greenfield apologized and used her fingers to flick a garnish of raw onions directly onto the table.

She had brought her Canon camera, which she plunked down next to her plate; a luxury department store is basically her Serengeti. But she decided not to photograph anyone that day. She hadn’t gotten permission, so the security guards would have likely intervened. Despite being a sly documentarian of strangers at times, Ms. Greenfield doesn’t easily fade into the background. With her minimalist black wardrobe, giant smile and short stature, she’s like a version of her profession out of “The Incredibles”: a slightly glamorous, vaguely academic photographer-mom.

Ms. Greenfield grew up in communes on the West Side of Los Angeles. Her mother, a psychologist, leaned into the counterculture of the 1970s, joining an “eating collective” and refusing to buy Ms. Greenfield brand-name clothes. She appears in “Generation Wealth,” telling her daughter, “The things you didn’t have were the things that I didn’t believe in.”

What the family valued was education, and when Ms. Greenfield was in the 11th grade, she enrolled at the private Crossroads School in nearby Santa Monica, where she befriended some of the city’s wealthiest teens. That ignited her obsession with “materialism and class,” she said, “because my parents had rejected it so much.”.
       Limo Bob, the self-proclaimed “Limo King,” in Chicago, 2008. Credit Lauren Greenfield

Sara Jane Ho in “Generation Wealth” teaches aspirational Chinese how to pronounce luxury brand names in English. Credit Lauren Greenfield

In 1983, Ms. Greenfield matriculated at Harvard, where her parents had studied, and where she encountered both Mr. Evers and a student body of immense privilege. While traveling around the world her junior year, studying film and anthropology, Ms. Greenfield met the pioneering French photographer Jean Rouch, who is credited with helping invent the style known as cinéma vérité, and after returning to Cambridge she changed her major to visual studies.

Ms. Greenfield then trained under Barbara Norfleet, who in the mid-1980s released “All the Right People,” a book of reportage photography focusing on East Coast elites. At the time, such creatures would mostly appear in staged portraits or respectfully edited party pictures, but Ms. Norfleet wanted to capture them and their rituals in the wild. “I realized the rich were, in many ways, this undercover group,” Ms. Greenfield said. “That’s hugely important, because they have so much influence.”

Encouraged by Mr. Evers, who had been hired at Columbia Pictures, Ms. Greenfield applied to film schools a few years after graduation, but she wasn’t admitted anywhere. She concentrated on still photography, earning assignments with National Geographic. Her first project, about a Mayan tribe in Mexico that her mother was studying, was spiked. But after rereading “Less Than Zero,” Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 novel of California excess, she pursued an idea about her own native culture: a portfolio chronicling Crossroads and other deluxe schools, where students attended five-figure bar mitzvahs, drove Range Rovers and cavorted with celebrity progeny like Kate Hudson.

Ms. Greenfield turned the resulting images into her first monograph, “Fast Forward,” which earned her gallery representation and the attention of magazine photo editors. She traveled to the wealthy suburb of Edina, Minn., to record popular cliques enamored with Abercrombie & Fitch; and to Milan, where white teenage boys had co-opted the bandannas, baggy jeans and aesthetics of American gang culture. One fellow photographer told Ms. Greenfield that she ran the risk of pigeonholing herself, but she ultimately decided to “keep peeling back that onion,” she said.

Her pictures, relying on candy colors, awkward compositions and voyeuristic access, synced with the work of other rising photographers in the 1990s, including David LaChapelle and, a bit later on, Ryan McGinley. They also drew the attention of Sheila Nevins, the former HBO documentary president. In 2002, she hired Ms. Greenfield to make her first feature-length film, “Thin,” an unrelenting account of four patients at an eating-disorder treatment center in Coconut Creek, Fla.

To call any of Ms. Greenfield’s portrayals flattering would be inaccurate. (Ms. Siegel’s husband sued the director for defamation after the “The Queen of Versailles” was released, but the director won $750,000 in legal fees after an arbitrator ruled that everything in the film was true.) And she seems to have a knack for convincing people to be radically, unappealingly honest. Her subjects must find that cathartic. Many have agreed to sit with her repeatedly over the years, including for “Generation Wealth,” and Ms. Greenfield has stayed close with several of them, even those she’s captured in harsh light. 

Ms. Greenfield and Jacqueline Siegel at the New York premiere of “The Queen of Versailles” in 2012.Credit Neilson Barnard/Getty Images 
One of them, a Las Vegas party host named Tiffany Masters, flew to New York to attend the “Generation Wealth” premiere. Sipping an espresso martini at the after-party, she described how Ms. Greenfield has caught her in various unfavorable ways: in the act of pulling her skirt down, for example, or recording a fatty “flap over the bra.” Nonetheless, Ms. Masters said, she doesn’t fault the artist. “Lauren has the ability to shoot the truth,” she said.

But does Ms. Masters like those photos of herself?

Long pause. “No.”

Why not?

Another long pause. “They’re unfiltered,” Ms. Masters said. “They’re raw. They’re uncensored. But they’re human.”

‘Light Finance, With Heavy Repercussions’

Ms. Greenfield joined the ranks of prominent documentarians in 2012, after “The Queen of Versailles” grossed $2.4 million in ticket sales. The movie centered on Ms. Siegel and her husband, David, a time-share tycoon, as they attempted to build one of the largest houses in America. During filming, the couple halted construction when Mr. Siegel became a victim of the real estate bubble. “He’s been to Donald Trump’s office a couple of times trying to get help,” Mr. Siegel’s son says in the movie. In “Generation Wealth,” Ms. Siegel returns to claim she once dated Mr. Trump.

“I’m not interested in the one percent for their own sake,” Ms. Greenfield said. “I’m interested in how we’re all engaged, like Jackie and David, in wanting a little bit more.” Ms. Greenfield is convinced that few people learned their lesson in the 2008 crisis, and she has spent a decade worrying about a modern-day version of the Fall of Rome. In the film, Chris Hedges, a former New York Times journalist, warns that “societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment they face death.”

Rather than lampoon the rich, “Generation Wealth” attempts to examine how avarice has destroyed lives across economic strata. The film intercuts a history of Ms. Greenfield’s career with the stories of more than a dozen characters, as they reveal in broad strokes the ways in which the desire for more (money, beauty, attention, success) has tainted society. There’s an Icelandic fisherman who becomes a banker and installs a waterfall in his home, only for the country’s economic collapse to send him back to the seas; an adviser who charges outrageous sums to teach aspirational Chinese how to pronounce luxury brand names in English; an adult film actress, once paid $30,000 by Charlie Sheen, who’s had three nose jobs in attempt to escape her past. Much of the footage is wealth porn. Some is actual porn.

Another character, Florian Homm, sobs on camera about the ways greed isn’t good. (A former financier, he was accused of defrauding his investors, causing $200 million in losses, and was wanted by the F.B.I.) “It’s light finance, with heavy repercussions,” Mr. Homm said in an interview. “But Lauren leaves the viewer to make their own assessments.”

The critical response to “Generation Wealth” has been mixed. “Its structure makes for an unfocused thesis,” wrote Jeannette Catsoulis in The Times. Robert Abele, writing in The Los Angeles Times, agreed that the film is “unwieldy” but also “an achievement — a messy, conspicuous and sporadically absorbing one.” 
‘The Damage Has Already Been Done’

After “The Queen of Versailles” was released, one of Ms. Greenfield’s Harvard film professors, Robb Moss, told her that all of her work “was actually about addiction.” But an inherent challenge in chronicling any form of addiction is the risk of glorifying it. If “Generation Wealth” is Ms. Greenfield’s effort to decry incessant capitalism, it also puts the behavior on a podium.

Her editors encouraged Ms. Greenfield to add her own story to the film. She interviewed her parents and her two teenage sons, Noah and Gabriel, about her own compulsion: working too much. The “generation” in the title is a reference to these scenes, which tie the movie together and provide emotional heft. Ms. Greenfield, who often interviews her subjects for hours at a time, doesn’t shy from emotional inquiries into her own inadequacies as a mother. In one clip, a 16-year-old Noah tells Ms. Greenfield that because she was so often away on assignments, Mr. Evers did the bulk of raising him, and that “the damage has already been done.”
Ms. Greenfield shooting a self-portrait at the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai in 2009.Credit Lauren Greenfield

Both Mr. Evers and Ms. Greenfield were initially reluctant to include her story in the film.

“But Lauren realized that she herself was very much a part of this wealth culture,” Mr. Evers said. “She wanted audiences to realize they were complicit, too.” Ms. Greenfield became more comfortable with appearing in her own work after trying it in a 2014 ad she created for the feminine-care brand Always. The spot featured the director interviewing children about gender stereotypes, showing how the phrase “like a girl” — as in “run like a girl” or “fight like a girl” — transforms into an insult as kids age. The campaign has become Ms. Greenfield’s most-watched product, after airing during the 2015 Super Bowl and amassing more than 200 million views.

“Generation Wealth,” which Ms. Greenfield has also turned into a traveling museum exhibition, doubles as a retrospective and a farewell to her focus on still photography. “Print is dying,” she said, and magazines are commissioning fewer shoots, unable to finance the weeks of travel that her style of reportage requires. In the future, she said, she will concentrate on documentaries. Her next project is with Showtime; Ms. Greenfield would reveal only that it is set in Asia.

Her current film ends with a dose of unexpected brightness, returning to characters who have forsaken their love of money for actual, human love. But ultimately, the takeaway from Ms. Greenfield’s decades of work seems to be that it’s up to future generations to decide how to spend their money — and if you ask her son Noah for his take, the kids are not all right.

“That’s what I realized from the film,” he said in an interview. “People are spending like nobody cares, and that’s exactly how it was in 2008.”