Social corruption is never quite as startling as when it's illustrated by children. In the one-hour documentary "Kids + Money," photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, ("Thin") interviews 13 Los Angeles children about their relationship with money, and as you would imagine, it is not particularly healthy. Here's 17-year old Emmanuel, who, with financial assistance, attends Harvard-Westlake and obsessively dreams of being part of the wealth he sees every day. Here's 12-year-old Annika, who badgers her mother constantly for a wardrobe that can pass muster in any of her school's cliques, and 17-year-old Sean Michael, who had to get a job when his folks refused to support his Nike habit.
"In L.A.," explains Phoebe, 16, in a bored voice, "the money is on the surface level. When you meet someone, it's like, 'Hi. I'm this person. I'm rich,' or 'Hi, I'm this person. I wish I was rich.' "
This "whatever" acceptance of life defined by possessions is balanced by a few more sensible voices -- Luis, 14, knows what it's like to go without food, and Zoie, 17, lives in such a tiny apartment that she shares a bedroom with her parents. But the point is clear: Many children are part of a status infrastructure so rooted in wealth it makes Edith Wharton's New York look like a socialist utopia.
It is easy to dismiss these kids, with their credit cards and spa birthday parties, as simply spoiled rotten. Tempting too -- especially when one young diva gives her mother, who is in the next room, the finger, or the almost finger, before looking at the camera with a hackle-raising mixture of guilt and defiance.
But to view "Kids + Money" as merely a disturbing portrait of modern youth, or, for that matter, Los Angeles, would be a mistake. Yes, most of these kids are horrifying, but they're only giving voice to learned behavior. And although Greenfield, disturbingly, chooses to include only mothers in the interviews, the larger questions raised are not so much about parenting as they are about our values as a nation.
Obviously, a shoe collection like Sean Michael's is excessive even by L.A. standards, but there is no denying that American children consume in amounts and ways that they did not even a generation ago. And why wouldn't they? They are marketed to by every company from the Gap to Nokia to Burke-Williams. Rich kids have always had their baby designer duds, but now it's the middle class that companies court, convincing 12-year-olds from Calabasas that they need to shop at Abercrombie, get their eyebrows waxed, have $200 sneakers and pedicures weekly.
As tempting as it is to feel smug while watching "Kids + Money" -- What is that mother thinking? What's wrong with kids today? -- these children are only spitting out the words we've put in their mouths. If Wall Street wizards can crash the economy by overspending, if thousands of adults can buy houses they couldn't afford, why shouldn't little Megan expect to get a paraffin dip every week? Why shouldn't Emmanuel think it is totally unfair that although he gets to go to posh Harvard-Westlake, he isn't as rich as his friends?
Money has become the sum of the American dream, and these kids are exactly what that looks like.
'Kids + Money'
When: 7 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)