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Lauren Greenfield's Fast Forward

By Blake de Pastino

There's something about documentaries that people don't enjoy anymore. In fact, over the past couple of years, photojournalism has practically become the whipping boy of the art world. Why? Well, it seems that we've been putting way too much faith in things like honesty and objectivity, things that most photographers aren't interested in delivering. So critics have become fond of deconstructing the genre, pointing out, for instance, that Dorothea Lange--who chronicled farmworkers during the Depression--actually staged many of her photos. Or that the naked natives you see in National Geographic actually wear T-shirts and tennis shoes when the cameras aren't around. All told, it's been a hard lesson for us to learn: Pictures can lie. And we have let them to lie to us.

The young photographer Lauren Greenfield, 30, was just coming of age when this awakening was taking shape, and for that reason, she seems entirely unfazed by it. That's one of the great strengths of her debut documentary book, Fast Forward. In this unflattering portrait of L.A.'s youth culture, Greenfield makes no bones about being critical, manipulative--in a word, artful--about how she documents. And as a result, her work seems more honest and open, more brutally candid, than almost any documentary in recent memory.

Over the course of 79 color photos, she creates a disturbing and vivid picture of what it means to grow up in L.A., involving everyone from Beverly Hills debutantes to inner-city gangstas. And each pack of images is accompanied by an interview, to give them more life. One by one, then, we meet kids who are vapid and vain, or lost and ostracized. Kids like Adam, 13, who we find dancing with a go-go girl at his bar mitzvah party. "I felt really good after my bar mitzvah," he says later, "and I was getting a lot of play with the girls." Or Wendy, 23, standing awkwardly next to her father, whom she openly resents, because he bought her a Mercedes instead of a BMW. "It's the stigma attached to a Mercedes," she tries to explain. Or Ozzie, a father at age 17, kissing his baby on the head, vowing someday to hit it big as a rap star and find "a safe place for my daughter." In the end, all these kids seem like prisoners of the same culture, a culture embossed by Hollywood that has taught them that image is everything. And while pursuing that image, they have lost their childhoods.

Of course, Greenfield isn't the first photographer to take on the banalities of popular culture. In fact, Fast Forward bears a strong resemblance to an earlier indictment of California life, Bill Owens' Suburbia, a 1973 documentary that showed how even the richest folks can suffer from a cultural kind of poverty. What makes Greenfield different, though, is her sense of urgency. As she makes plain in the preface, Fast Forward "is a criticism of the culture and its values." And you can see how she orchestrates her images to drive that criticism home. The pictures of rich kids, for example, are usually embarrassingly candid--with their faces full of food or their mouths hanging open. The city kids, meanwhile, are more often posed, shown with family and friends or flashing hand-signs of solidarity. The rich, too, are usually blurry with motion, as if they're flighty and unfocused, while the poor seem still and solid. Although somewhat insidious, these little manipulations end up being quite effective: Beneath the spoken message that Hollywood culture affects everyone uniformly, there is this intimation that L.A.'s image problem is really coming from the top down.

And perhaps what's most interesting about all this is that Greenfield herself is a product of the Hollywood, private-school scene. As she explains in her sensitive introduction, she created this book to capture the essence of the city that shaped her. So in effect, Greenfield is using images of other people to illustrate herself, which makes Fast Forward not only an exposé of a crippled subculture, but an incredibly insightful, postmodern kind of self-documentary. This personal perspective--this sense of an artist who's not afraid to manipulate her own image--is what sets this documentary apart. Maybe it's not all that brave to make pictures that lie. But if you think about it, nothing takes more guts than being honest about yourself. (Knopf, cloth, $35)

--Blake de Pastino

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