How Lauren Greenfield uses documentary to amplify women’s voices

In Hollywood, where older white males have historically dominated executive and above-the-line film positions, the tide has begun to shift. This is especially true with regards to the number of women in documentary filmmaking. 

One female voice, in particular, has made a splash in the commercial and documentary scene. She is poised to have a similar impact on the narrative filmmaking scene in 2019 as well.

More than a documentarian, she is a multimedia artist. With her work, she aims to amplify female and diverse voices in the advertising world. She has tackled such themes as consumerism, youth culture and body image in her work.

She is award-winning filmmaker Lauren Greenfield. 

We got a chance to talk to Greenfield on the heels of her recent signing to powerhouse talent agency William Morris Agency. We chatted about the recent rise of “Girl Culture” and how her work has helped women amplify their voice in the cultural conversation.

Origins as a photographer

Greenfield got her start in photography. After graduating from Harvard in 1987, she got her first break as an intern photographer for the National Geographic. Her first assignment was to shoot a Mayan tribe.

“The way I got access to the tribe was through my mother’s relationship with the tribe and specifically, women in the tribe.” Greenfield’s mother, Patricia, is a psychologist. 

Initial roadblocks

“I didn’t have access to the political area, which was all men — I was able to shoot the women in the tribes.” The story, however, wasn’t well received. “I will never forget bringing pictures back to my editor. He was not interested. He asked where is the political scene? I remember thinking, like, as a woman it was hard to capture the political scene because it was all men … the story ended up getting killed.”

That was Greenfield’s first taste of the commercial world. Similar to Hollywood, the gatekeepers generally lack diversity. This limits the opportunities for women and minority voices to share their stories. Nat Geo did publish Greenfield’s work later in her career. At that time, however, she had to pivot to find a different outlet for her work.

Finding a way through

“I went to New Yorker Magazine and they thought my story was interesting because they had female editors and offered more work.” Five years later her second major body of work evolved, titled “Girl Culture.”

Girl Culture was a book and monograph series that focused on the images and self-esteem of American women. It became one of the major themes in her work. Now, it’s the name of her recently-launched production company, Girl Culture Films.   

The early setback helped Greenfield find her cause. As a result, her work has started a conversation about parity through equal representation.

Evolution into documentary filmmaking

Greenfield’s first documentary film, “Thin” (2006), was the next evolution in her work. It was the follow-up to five years of work on the Girl Culture series. “Thin,” a feature-length documentary broadcast on HBO, has an accompanying book with the same title.

“I studied filmmaking and visual anthropology and why people do the things they do. When I started, I didn’t get into any film schools, I didn’t have the money to do a movie. When I applied for grants, established people were receiving them, so I became a photographer so I could go and do my stories.” 

Making ends meet

Greenfield did other jobs like waitressing along with her photojournalism work for magazines to make ends meet. Eventually, the stories she worked on evolved into documentary films.

“I was a photographer for many years. [I] tried my first documentary and it kind of just opened a new expression as a storyteller. I loved documentary and you could see it in the photographs, interviews and books I produced, which [are] sort of a mix of the two,” Greenfield explains.

Generation Wealth (2018) Photo Lauren Greenfield Courtesy Amazon Studios
Generation Wealth (2018) Photo Lauren Greenfield Courtesy Amazon Studios

Becoming a storyteller

Like the early growing pains she experienced in her photography work, Greenfield had to learn more about storytelling and narrative arc over time. Her prior work with subjects on sensitive topics such as eating disorders afforded her a certain access into the world of female body image and women’s self-esteem. The topics are cornerstones of her documentary and photographic work.

“Until my second my film, I wasn’t able to put my visual and storytelling stamp on it. I realize more fully as a documentarian the importance of storytelling in film, even though in college I was telling stories in sequence with interviews.” 

Greenfield eventually found her voice as a filmmaker. She quotes her husband Frank Evers when looking back at how her artistic voice has evolved: “Who you are is always who you’ve been.”

The number of women in documentary filmmaking is on the rise

Compared to other genres in filmmaking, documentary has seemed to reach some sort of parity. Commercial and narrative filmmaking, however, have not. The reason, Greenfield believes, is economic inequality.

“Just for a dose of realism… Why documentary has reached parity and commercial and narrative have not is because women have been traditionally welcomed into low paying fields.” Greenfield states. 

“Much of it is fueled by passion and labor of love.” Greenfield says, though she’s is quick to note the harsh realities in the field. “It’s been amazing to see documentary grow, but it is very challenging to make a living from it. It is more of a field for artists than to make a living.”

There is an upside to entering the filmmaking industry through documentary, though, for women and minority storytellers.

“Now women are in this position … to get exposure and accolades, as documentary is growing and burgeoning field.” Greenfield says “it is a launch pad to other things.”

Lauren Greenfield author of Generation Wealth Photo Lauren Greenfield
Lauren Greenfield author of Generation Wealth Photo Lauren Greenfield

Commercial and narrative filmmaking statistics tell a different story, though, as Greenfield points out. Harvard Business School finds that women make 86% of global consumer decisions. At the same time, Annenberg research that shows women direct fewer than 8% of commercials. 

Breaking through

“Girl Culture wasn’t happening in commercials,” but the 2014 #LikeAGirl campaign spot Greenfield directed went viral. It garnered over 200 million views. “There is something about women telling stories that allows women to connect with that audience, to those consumers.”

“There is something about women telling stories that allows women to connect with that audience, to those consumers.”

Greenfield talks about the infrastructure of the Hollywood system and the lack of opportunity for female and minority voices. “The reason it hasn’t happened more is because of structural problems. Gatekeepers haven’t traditionally been open to women.”

More than just socially responsible

“The #MeToo movement has given people motivation to adjust the imbalance. All my work in wealth and capitalism as well. It can clean up discrimination and hold people accountable in their jobs and thus increase sales of a product.” 

Greenfield says the numbers are very convincing. “The motivation is helping people kind of wake up to the problem when there’s not even one woman in the room.”

Documentary is a practical field that has opened first to women and others — an entry point. “Inclusion and diversity are so important in doc work; people in different positions are able to tell stories.” Greenfield says she “hopes women can use the opportunity in documentary similar to how Ryan Coogler did with Black Panther.” 

“Black Panther” became the highest grossing film of 2018. It got a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars. 

Making your movie

Greenfield describes developing an idea as a very organic process that often evolves from her photography work.

“Most projects start with an idea out of work I’ve done, like with “Girl Culture” or “Generation Wealth”. It was years into the process before I realized I was working on it, then had a moment of recognizing what I’ve been doing, then saying to myself that’s an important story, how do I tell it? What else do I need to shoot to and discover?”

Generation Wealth” (2018) is Greenfield’s latest documentary and is based on her book and photo exhibition of the same name. In the film, Greenfield examines materialism, celebrity culture and social status. She documents the desire to be wealthy at any cost.  

Generation Wealth was acquired by Amazon Studios last year and is available now to stream on Amazon.

Generation Wealth (2018) Photo Lauren Greenfield
Generation Wealth (2018) Photo Lauren Greenfield

Follow the story

“There was a saying Albert Maysles had ” — Maysles was a pioneer in documentary best known for the 1969 cinema verite doc “Salesman” — “If you end up making the movies you started out making, you’re not listening.” 

Greenfield says about the quote, “That describes my process — “Queen of Versailles,” “Generation Wealth” — the amazing part of doing work is that you get to listen and see where it takes you.”

Greenfield’s 2012 hit documentary “Queen of Versailles” is about billionaire couple David and Jackie Sigel (owners of the Westgate Resorts). It documents their quest to construct a 90,000 square foot estate, one of the most expensive single-family mansions in United States history. The film emphasizes how badly the 2008 economic crash affected Sigel’s company. We see how recession caused the Sigel’s to halt construction on the property and re-evaluate their lavish spending habits. The film ends with the Sigel’s conflicts unresolved.

Powers of Obervation

Greenfield talks about how the movie came about. “Queen of Versailles” grew out of photography project about wealth and the idea of the American Dream. “I met Jackie Sigel from a photo assignment at Elle Magazine and then again met her years later at a Versace party. I followed up with her do an interview.” 

Queen of Versailles (2012) star Jackie Sigel Photo Lauren Greenfield
Queen of Versailles (2012) star Jackie Sigel Photo Lauren Greenfield

The photo series turned into a documentary when Greenfield happened to shoot the photo assignment on the same day the Sigel house went up for sale. 

“I was already steeped in the subject and recognized that I had to do more — I already had documented the crash in LA where pools had green water and overgrown grass when I understood David (Sigel) was overextended.”

The story emerged from the broader social context that Greenfield observed elsewhere. “I wouldn’t have recognized this if I hadn’t been embedded in documenting aspects of the American Dream and the economic crash.” 

Greenfield also attributes her ability to recognize the subject matter in her work to a background in visual anthropology.

Controlling the narrative

“A lot of my work is about people effected by images, in media and advertising. I’ve spent a lot of my career looking at the damaging effects.” 

Greenfield says “The answer to that is women having a voice in making those images… Women wanting to direct instead of wanting to be a YouTube star or a model. Being objectified in front of a camera is the accessible path. Jackie Sigel was an engineer but went in front of the camera.”

“I think it’s great for women to control that narrative, in a way that’s empowering. That’s really exciting thing about the #LikeAGirl campaign. For the first time, it’s more of an activist role.”

For Greenfield, her new production company is an answer to a problem. That’s why she launched Girl Culture Films. “The kind of stories women will tell, the kind of representations women will see in advertising, will be a reflection of a women’s voice.”

Lauren Greenfield on set Photo Kamaryn Potter Courtesy of Girl Culture Films
Lauren Greenfield on set Photo Kamaryn Potter Courtesy of Girl Culture Films

The Golden Age of documentary is an opportunity for women and minorities

Many articles over the past couple years have stated that documentary filmmaking is entering a Golden Age of sorts. With new distribution paths available as a result of companies like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon paying top dollar for a hit documentary, it has become an opportunity for women to enter the game on a level playing field.

“For girls and women looking at this industry now, the doors are wide open because people care about talent, and talent always rises to the top” Greenfield said. “The most important thing is to find your voice and make your movie. There is a ton of need for content, and a ton of distribution options.”

Most importantly though Greenfield says “There are not gatekeepers keeping people out of documentary, like there are in other arts. It’s about stories that haven’t been told before that are the most exciting. People less represented, like women and people of color, have an opportunity there.”

I asked Greenfield if we can thank pioneering women in documentary like Sheila Nevins (HBO) and Dianne Weyerman (Participant Media) for women having so much success in documentary. She responded by saying,  “You see it in magazines, you see it in museums, when women are in positions of power to make choices, it’s going to put women telling their story in a position to succeed.”

Girl Culture Films, WME and beyond

In February 2019 Greenfield announced the launch of Girl Culture Films. She also signed with the powerhouse talent agency WME to make her first feature narrative film appropriately titled “Man Under.” 

Greenfield founded Girl Culture Films with her producing partner and husband Frank Evers. It’s a commercial production company that reps A-list directors for commercial projects and branded content opportunities with the aim of amplifying female and diverse voices. 

Creating a platform for diverse voices

The idea behind the company, Greenfield says, “is to ensure that women have a bigger voice in the cultural conversation — in which advertising is a driving force. I knew it was crucial to appeal to audiences through storytelling, so our roster is comprised of incredible directors with varied styles that can better connect brands’ narrative to the consumer. These filmmakers can engage diverse audiences in an authentic way that captures an inclusive human experience and we can become the change makers for more representation across all screens.”

The first couple of projects coming out of Greenfield’s Girl Culture Films include a production directed by Amy Berg and also a new commercial multi media project directed by Greenfield.

Amy Berg and Lauren Greenfield on the set of a Girl Culture Films production Photo Kamaryn Potter
Amy Berg and Lauren Greenfield on the set of a Girl Culture Films production Photo Kamaryn Potter

The multimedia project Greenfield is producing features mostly still images, mixed with animated motion. She describes it as “an interesting hybrid.” 

Girl Culture Films will officially launch this year at SXSW film festival, where Greenfield is hosting a panel with other powerful women representing various platforms and mediums.

Balancing fiction and non-fiction

With her first feature narrative, “Man Under,” on the way, Greenfield did not forget about her documentary and photography roots. When talking about “Man Under” she says, “Even my foray into fiction will play with the same ideas.”

Girl Culture will release non-fiction films as well. Greenfield said she has also been working on a doc for several years that will be ready this fall, but could not share any more information on the project at this time.

Advice for emerging female documentary filmmakers

Greenfield says “Kind of just do it and follow your heart! Don’t make something someone else will like or that you think has a good chance in the market place; make the movie you were born to make.” 

And true to most doc filmmakers ethos, Greenfield advises inspiring filmmakers to do whatever it takes to make it work. “Live at home, make networks with friends. You have to beg, borrow and steal. Go to places like Sundance, get grants — that’s the most important thing.”

Lastly, she says it’s better to work a job that gives you the flexibility to do your dream project. “Most people get derailed climbing the path job wise. No one is going to pay you for something you’ve never done before…” so just figure out a way to do it!

Greenfield has won multiple awards and shown at film festivals throughout the world. She empowers the new generation of women in documentary with her sights set on conquering narrative and commercial filmmaking next. If her track record proves anything, it’s that she is going to succeed at doing it #LikeAGirl.


Greenfield’s photography has been featured in International publications such as The New Yorker, Time, The Guardian, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, People, Elle, Cosmopolitanand National Geographic. Her work has been exhibited and featured in many musuems as well including The Smithsonian National Musuem of American History, J. Paul Getty Musuem, Harvard University Archive and the Internatinal Center of Photoagraphy.

Queen of Versailles (2012) was nominated for Best Documentary Film by the IDA (International Documentary Association) and also nominated for a Critics Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature. The documentary won the US Directing Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and other awards.

#LikeAGirl (2014) ad went viral racking up over 200 million views and swept commercial awards. The campaign was named one of YouTubes “Ads of the Decade”, with Greenfield becoming the first woman to top that list.

Generation Wealth (2018)won Best Documentary Director award at Sundance in 2017 was also nominated for a Writers Guild Award for Best Documentary Screenplay. 

Landon Dyksterhouse
Landon Dyksterhouse
Landon Dyksterhouse is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and is the founder of D-House Entertainment.

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