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"Affluenza" is "The Great Gatsby" of the New Age

Denver waits for its own "Affluenza" premiere.
Denver waits for its own "Affluenza" premiere.
Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

"Affluenza" movie


The film takes the elements of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic story of affluence and entitlement and modernizes them, complete with the 21st-century term "affluenza." The film closely mirrors the seemingly pointless existence of the American privileged class right before the 2008 economic collapse actually snuffs out their fortunes.

"Affluenza" follows teen amateur photographer Fisher Miller as he moves to Long Island to stay with moneyed relatives after his parents' divorce. Fisher leaves his middle-class background to enter the elite world of the young and rich, a clutch of teens living the high life on their parents' money.

The majority of the story centers on Kate, Miller's beautiful but spoiled cousin. Actress Nicola Peltz is a premiere choice for the role, adding subtlety and even pathos to a despicable character. She is, after all, the center of a love triangle in which she plays two equally-privileged young men against each other in the procurement of gifts and attention. Nonetheless, Peltz plays the role with such grace that in the end the audience pities her.

Actor Gregg Sulkin plays the role of Dylan, one of Kate's suitors, and the more worshipful of the two. While Dylan coincides with Fitzgerald's title character, Gatsby, he actually channels the heydays of the 1980s. He lounges around in tennis whites and designer sunglasses à la James Spader in "Pretty in Pink." Perhaps the scene in which he calls out to Kate from underneath his window is meant to hearken to Stanley Kowalski of "A Streetcar Named Desire," but it carries the feel of John Cusack's boombox scene in the 1989 film "Say Anything." The 1980s, after all, were all about conspicuous consumption, and it's a time period to which teens and their Generation X parents can relate.

The title of the film provides the most up-dating aspect of the re-told tale. The term "affluenza" refers to the debt and anxiety that result from over-consumerism. It's notable, though, as the center of the 2013 legal defense of a teen boy named Ethan Couch who killed four pedestrians while driving drunk. He only received probation and mandatory alcohol counseling partially because the defense argued that his own state of "affluenza" meant he hadn't been raised to understand the consequences of his own actions due to his financial privilege.

Naturally, Couch's case is polarizing, and many viewers may be disappointed that the movie does not touch upon this story. However, any writer or director would have difficulty painting Couch's character with any level of ethos, meaning such a film would be relegated to documentary and, therefore, short-lived.

Instead, director Kevin Asch and screenplay writer Antonio Macia, choose to examine the causes and effects of the condition that allegedly led to Couch's actions. Viewers may feel a bit of sympathy for Kate, especially since her family proposes the antiquated notion that women are beautiful but worthless baubles, the proverbial arm candy for wealthy Wall Street men. Dylan, for being good-looking and rich, is almost pathetic in his one-way love for Kate. Miller is so clearly a fish out of water.

As for Kate's erstwhile boyfriend, Todd, he's just a nasty piece of work. Make no mistake, actor Grant Gustin plays the role well -- too well, as it turns out, since Todd is only interested in money, high-quality marijuana, status and sex, in that order. He's probably the closest character to the real-life Ethan Couch, which, again, makes viewers grateful that Asch and Macia didn't choose to make Couch the center of their film.

Likewise, the plot is enhanced by its juxtaposition to President Barrack Obama's first campaign. The main characters suffer from no "audacity of hope" as they sit around in their mansion watching Obama's inspiring speeches with total boredom.

Adding more fillip to the film is the fact that the action takes place right before the financial collapse of Wall Street. Viewers are well aware of the fallout from the impending collapse, yet the characters remain blissfully unaware. As movie-goers watch the beautiful youths cavorting in their ill-deserved mansions and indulging in obscene shopping trips, they can console themselves with the truth that the characters will soon get what they really deserve.

Naturally, Asch's and Macia's story cannot stand up to the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic on which it is loosely based. However, "Affluenza" is not meant to. The story is modern and ephemeral. It feels as short-lived as a tweet. Yet that is exactly what makes the story relevant. "Affluenza" is "The Great Gatsby" for the teen set -- and they are not known for attention spans longer than the average tweet. Don't blame them, though -- they were raised that way.