Film Review: Affluenza

Handsome-looking but all-too-familiar drama about wealthy Long Island teens with too much money and time on their hands makes no inroads into the adolescent angst that afflicts the silver-spoon set. Like the recent and aggressively marketed <i>Palo Alt

Filmmaker Kevin Asch writes about something close to home, no doubt both emotionally and geographically, as he delivers a depiction of the spoiled, pampered lives of teens lolling and partying in their gilded Long Island North Shore haven for the rich. His device to bring this posh suburban lifestyle closer to viewers’ homes is to center on a relatively innocent protagonist, a college dropout adopted by rich relatives for the summer and thrown into the lush and lascivious world of his more privileged contemporaries.

But Affluenza will rock no worlds—neither that of the haves nor the have-nots, as there’s no “there” there to take viewers a step beyond or even alongside what they’ve already seen or read about the foibles of the young and rich. To name but a very few, there are films like Rebel Without a Cause, Igby Goes Down, Less Than Zero and so much literature going back to the Greek classics and the Bible and notably taken up many centuries later by F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger and many others.

Affluenza may garner some initial attention; it’s nice to look at, the performances are all solid, and parents deservedly come under some harsh light. Most probably, Affluenza, performing as Palo Alto East, will win eyeballs beyond the big screen.

Set in late summer 2008 as the financial crisis looms, the rather tired story has aspiring photographer and college dropout Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfield), from upstate New York, seeking to transfer to an unnamed New York City college. At the Long Island funeral for his grandfather, he’s invited to spend the summer with his bitchy Aunt Bunny (Samantha Mathis), money-mad loudmouth Uncle Phil (Steve Guttenberg) and their teen-siren/party-girl daughter Kate (Nicola Peltz), Fisher’s cousin, at their nearby spread in Great Neck. Fisher’s gay father Ira (Danny Burstein) approves but encourages his son not to neglect his mother’s upcoming marriage.

Fisher’s purpose in Great Neck is to be close to the city near Professor Walker (Adriane Lenox), with whom he wants to study, and the school of his choice. The challenge is to get a meeting with Andrew Carson (Roger Rees), the banker stepfather of Dylan (Gregg Sulkin), an ultra-rich kid. His stepfather is a trustee of the school Fisher hopes to attend, but Dylan wants a favor done in return for a meeting. He’s after Kate but she’s seeing Todd Goodman (Grant Gustin), and Fisher’s job is to clear the way for Dylan to pounce. Meanwhile, Dylan’s mother Ellen (Kathy Tong), Andrew’s trophy wife, keeps up with the kids by doing her share of pot, partying and flirting.

Hanging with Dylan, Kate and her louche friend Jody (Valentina de Angelis), Fisher falls in with this wealthy, spoiled, partying crowd. But these kids, to borrow from another film, aren’t all right. They spend their time poolside or on boats and golf courses, drink plenty, and do lots of drugs for which Fisher becomes their handy supplier.

When the financial crisis finally arrives, these people take their hits. Panic sets in, families break up, fortunes are lost, and rich Middle Easterners move like vultures from the sidelines. But there’s really no one to care about here, nothing to think about.

Affluenza, the word referring to a “psychological malaise” described as an affliction of wealthy young people, might have had some bite (maybe too much) had it also dared a more dangerous and meaningful examination of the ugly sliver of older, wealthy Jews depicted. After all, “affluenza” might be inherited and not merely contagious. Taking such a controversial path requires guts, but mainstream filmmaking lives in a safer zone.

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