In an article entitled The New Cinema of Stuff (subscription required), Time found a shiny things theme figuring prominently in The Great Gatsby, The Bling Ring, and Spring Breakers.
While their story lines couldn’t be more different, their visions are united by long, loving looks at stuff…
As for The Great Gatsby, producer Baz Luhrmann told Time he worked hard to capture Gatsby’s “belief in stuff’s power.”
Every detail in that house is about him saying, ‘Look how rich I am. I am worthy because I have all this stuff.’
While materialism at the movies is nothing new, such conspicuous displays of consumption fell out of fashion during the last recession. Apparently, it was simply a pause on the long march toward an ever increasingly consumerist culture. The Great Gatsby even pioneered a new form of co-promotion.
Its brand partnerships flip traditional product placement, putting film references in shops rather than vice versa. For example, though Brooks Brothers isn’t called out onscreen, the company dressed the actors (as it once did Fitzgerald) and launched a tie-in collection.
Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College and the author of The High Price of Materialism, isn’t surprised by such movies. In part, he told Time they simply reflect the culture we live in. For example, he’s been tracking high school seniors’ views on money and possessions for several decades and has seen noticeable increases in the importance they place on “having a lot of money” and “owning a new car every two to three years.” Interestingly,
That same research also found that the increasing desire for stuff has been inversely related to a desire to work for it.
Along with monitoring the presence of consumerism in our culture, Kasser also studies its impact, noting that,
[Consumerist values] are associated with lower happiness, less civil society and less [ecologically] sustainable behavior.
That message isn’t lost on Luhrmann or Sophia Coppola, director of The Bling Ring, a true story about a group of California kids that stole millions of dollars’ worth of luxury goods from celebrity homes.
‘That side of our culture is fun to look at in small doses,’ she says. ‘I definitely overdosed on stuff by the end of the shoot.’ As for Luhrmann, a central question behind his film was how to make a movie in which every object is desirable but, by the end, ‘you almost choke on it.’
Time said the films are ultimately “artistic critiques of materialism,” and that the films’ characters end up being “confronted with the emptiness of the ‘materialistic myth.’” However, it also noted that moviegoers are more likely to walk away dazzled than dissuaded.
Seeing fancy things triggers ideas about having fancy things. ‘From what I know of psychology,’ says Kasser, ‘a critique is going to have to be awfully explicit and awfully sustained in order not to activate those desires for materialistic stuff.’
Apparently, Hollywood believes there’s a desire for more such movies. The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest in the greed-is-good genre and starring Gatsby lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio, is planned for release this fall.
While I haven’t seen any of the films mentioned in the article, Time’s descriptions suggest another theme: the challenge of living with a tension highlighted many times throughout Scripture.
We’re told that we have been sent into the world, but are taught not to be of the world (John 17:15-18).
We’re told that God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17), but are taught to live other-centered lives (Philippians 2:4) in which generosity is our highest financial priority (Proverbs 3:9).
We are told that God will give us “good gifts” (Matthew 7:11), but are warned against worshiping “created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).
We’re told that Jesus came that we might have life “more abundantly” (John 10:10), but are taught that life “does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Consumerist messages that link things with happiness, identity, and self-worth have become so pervasive, so much a part of the air we breathe, that we may not even notice the degree to which we have bought in.
How do you manage the tension of living in our consumer culture, without becoming part of that culture? And do you have any edifying movie recommendations?
By Matt Bell
Matt Bell is Sound Mind Investing’s Associate Editor. He is the author of three personal finance books published by NavPress, leads workshops at churches and universities throughout the country, and has been quoted in USA TODAY, U.S. News & World Report, and many other media outlets.