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2018-07-09 — theguardian.com

Lauren Greenfield has spent years photographing the world's richest people. Now she's made a documentary on society's obsession with extreme wealth -- and its cost to us all

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Greenfield introduces us to characters all motivated by the accumulation of wealth. "No matter how much people had, they still wanted more," Greenfield says of her subjects. We meet Florian Homm, a hedge fund manager living in self-imposed exile in Germany to avoid extradition to the US where he has been sentenced to 225 years in jail. Smoking cigars and dripping in gold, Homm, who became known as "the antichrist of finance" for ripping off his investors for hundreds of millions of dollars, tells Greenfield that morality changed in the 80s. "The value system changed completely. It wasn't about who you are, but about what you are worth... Morals are completely non-productive in that value system."

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The stories Greenfield tells about rich families detached from the world around them, living in bubbles separated from reality by armies of nannies and household staff, chime with my own experiences covering the super-rich as wealth correspondent for the Observer and the Guardian. From Knightsbridge to Monaco, the Upper West Side and the Hamptons, the wealthiest people in society are richer than they've ever been before. More of them have five, six, seven or even a dozen homes in the world's most desirable locations and it is not unusual for them to fly their nannies, tutors and security details between them on private jets. Their houses may cost as much as the £135m a Ukrainian billionaire paid for a penthouse in One Hyde Park, but that doesn't mean they'll spend much time there.

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A growing number of academics warn that the widening gulf between the richest 1% and everyone else could lead to a backlash. The richest 0.1% of the world's population has increased their combined wealth by as much as the poorest 50% -- or 3.8 billion people -- since 1980, according to the The report, by the French economist Thomas Piketty and 100 other researchers, also found that the richest 1% of the global population "captured" 27% of the world's wealth growth between 1980 and 2016. Piketty warns that inequality has ballooned to "extreme levels" in many countries, and will only get worse unless governments take co-ordinated action to increase taxes and prevent tax avoidance.

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She says that while examining her photos it became clear to her that "We have left behind the American dream of my dad's generation where there was the possibility of social mobility and the belief that anyone could make it. The things that were valued then -- discipline, hard work and frugality -- are not so important now. We have a culture that prizes celebrity, bling and narcissism." Trump, she says, "is the apotheosis of generation wealth. With Trump you have wealth and celebrity achieving the ultimate goal. Trump is the natural evolution of the values of our culture."

Yes, let's be careful or a backlash "will" come...

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