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Lauren Greenfield's 'Fast Forward' Is A Frightening Vision Of Coming Of Age In America.

By Margaret Regan

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  BACK IN 1948, Ansel Adams photographed a demure young lady in a long, ruffly dress. Head bowed and hands clasped, she posed sedately next to a classic Adams tree in "Graduation Dress, Yosemite Valley, California," 1948.

Fast forward 50 years to high-school graduation at Beverly Hills High School, circa 1998. Here's another young lady graduate, in a color photo by Lauren Greenfield. This girl is in a skimpy bikini top and shades, cruising along the beach in a convertible with a couple of half-naked guys. And the expression on her face is jaded, jaded, jaded.

The change from Adams' elegant black-and-white to Greenfield's jangly color is minor compared to the sea change in the cultural construction of adolescence documented by the two photographers. Sure, Adams exaggerated his young model's innocence; 1948 is a little late for ruffles and bowed heads. But Greenfield's images of contemporary adolescence in Los Angeles are downright horrifying. The adolescence she depicts is a shallow universe of flash and glitter, a strangely unreal place where MTV and TV rule, where parents are hardly visible, where consumerism is king.

Gathered together in a searing show called Lauren Greenfield's Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, the collection of 46 photos is a compendium of media-corrupted kids, obsessed with appearance and money. In image after colorful image, L.A. teens rich and poor show themselves wholly immersed in the hip media culture that saturates their city. A rich girl plays a Gameboy at her private school graduation; a poor boy plans to rap his way out of poverty. Everybody wants to be a star, if only for the night of the prom. And everybody wants to show the color of money. (Adams' retro teen is part of an instructive companion show, Selections from the Permanent Collection: Coming of Age.)

Greenfield herself grew up a rich kid in L.A., and after sojourning at Harvard in the 1980s returned to her native habitat. Equipped with a National Geographic grant, Greenfield plunged into the adolescent scene like an anthropologist out to document arcane rituals. She ventured into glitzy clubs and poolsides and kids' overstuffed bedrooms, and captured lavish openings and proms, kids in designer wear, and even noses recently gone under the surgeon's knife. She clinically dissects the Beverly Hills bar mitzvah, the modern-day equivalent of the potlatch, in which parents jockey for power positions by bleeding small fortunes on what's supposed to be a religious ceremony. Little girls in makeup and evening gowns, a 13-year-old boy peering down the bra of a hired go-go dancer, pubescent actresses dealing blackjack are only a few of the horrors she's flushed out.

Adolescence is her quarry, but Greenfield does not fail to investigate the early indoctrination teens-in-training undergo in the moneyed enclaves of Los Angeles. "Sophie, 6 weeks," graphically illustrates the notion of baby as hip acquisition: lying on a retro patterned rug, she's almost invisible in the elaborate decor of her family living room. Five-year-old Jenna plays dolls in her family room beneath a bank of three television sets, all turned on. Ten-year-old Emily preens seductively in the mirror of the toney hotel where she lives with her parents and servants. Little Emily confides to Greenfield, "I want to be a model for magazines and videos and TV shows and stuff." She's a facsimile child, like those denatured child-actors who appear on David Letterman late at night.

If the whole world now lives in the perpetual aftershocks of the media explosion, kids in Los Angeles are in the epicenter. In interview after interview, rich teens tell Greenfield how important it is to be gorgeous, like the stars they see on street and screen. At 13, Alison works out with a personal trainer, hoisting herself up on a stadium pole in Greenfield's picture. Ari, also 13, explains his standards for girls: "If you're not thin, then you're stupid or ugly or not even worth looking at, you know." His mother helped nurture this aesthetic by buying a bunch of girly Playboy posters for his room. Photographed in Ari's bedroom, mom beams at her boy, dressed in a tux, right below the playmates on the wall.

Another L.A. mom, mindful of the city's pressures on kids, believes in maintaining a close relationship to nature. Consumerism, as usual, comes to the rescue. She buys little Matthew and Joshua the most expensive and exotic animals she can find: boa constrictors and iguanas, tarantulas and South African lobsters. Greenfield captures the boys with their menagerie in their overstuffed bedroom.

Greenfield's project eventually led her to the poor side of town, to East L.A. and South Central. Kids there are poor, real poor, but Greenfield found them infected by the same tinsel-town values as the rich kids. Enrique, the son of an impoverished seamstress, says he saved for two years to pay for a limo the night of the prom. Duded up in gangster pinstripes on the big day, he proudly hands over the wad of cash to the driver, his date smiling broadly at his side. And even though they didn't get named king and queen of the dance, he says later, "I felt as though I had."

Somehow you feel a little more sympathy for this kid, feeling big for once in his life, than you do for the legions of teen yuppies who carouse in Greenfield's pictures at proms across town. The photographer maintains that in a surprising number of ways, the lot of kids at opposite ends of the economic spectrum is oddly similar: little parental supervision, allegiance to the peer group, an all-pervasive sense of style. They even share gang fashions. The big pants and baseball caps percolate from the gangs' mean streets up into Beverly Hills. Maybe so, maybe so, but as these L.A. kids themselves know, money makes all the difference. The poor kids aren't going to end up in the Hollywood Hills, or at Harvard.

Greenfield's rich pix are more persuasive; you sense she really knows her turf here. Her shimmery photos, filled with the flash of cameras and the sheen of the swimming pool, are in the colors of popular culture, the bright sunshines that Hollywood puts on the big screen. She's succeeded in capturing the bizarre tribal rituals of a strange American subculture, but there's a warning attached. These aren't kids coming of age in Samoa; these are the children of the media capital of the world. And as they say, as California goes, so goes the nation.


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