“It was important to me to include so many different kinds of places because in a way, what I’m looking at are the similarities more than the differences,” Greenfield said.
In chronicling Russia’s emerging elite, for example, Greenfield meets a Moscow real estate developer whose luxury homes come pre-stocked with a library of the finest Russian, British, French, German, and American literature, and an art collection for which he’s also printed a hefty catalogue that the buyers of his homes can leave prominently displayed, in case there’s any doubt as to how important the art collection is. But Greenfield is quick to point out that deploying culture to signal taste and class is on a continuum with the behavior of a newly flush finance bro in New York, only more visible.
“As an oligarch, you could buy culture. And in a way that was the ultimate thing to purchase: education, class, culture…kind of what money can’t buy,” said Greenfield. That explicitly transactional approach to culture might seem extreme, she said, but it can make visible similar, if more hidden, dynamics around us.
“In New York, you might have a wealthy person who hires an art consultant who buys for them, and so the owner doesn’t actually know anything about the art,” she said. “Well, that’s a hard thing to document here: It’s so subtle, they probably would not want to share that they don’t know the provenance of their actual art.”
In both the book and the show, Greenfield’s photos are accompanied by the subjects’ own words. There is a series of portraits of Jackie Siegel, the wife of time-share mogul David Siegel, dubbed the Queen of Versailles (after the spectacular mega-mansion the couple was building before the economy collapsed in 2008). Siegel started her career as an engineer at IBM in upstate New York, but quickly realized she’d fare better modeling in New York City and marrying rich. “You can never be too rich or have big enough boobs,” she told Greenfield, reflecting on her four breast augmentations (whose end result fills the entire frame of one photo).