Kevin Asch’s Affluenza unfurls its haplessly bland discourse on the moral bankruptcy of the American elite with an assured hand, like an episode of Gossip Girl that’s mistaken itself for one of the great satires by Evelyn Waugh. The screenplay, which sets its story during a lazy summer just before the Great Recession, squanders nearly every opportunity it gets to register a comment or observation on the ruling class with anything approximating personality, opting instead for a cautionary melodrama of the young, spoiled, and beautiful that’s utterly standard-issue. Tim Gillis’s gauzy camerawork betrays an almost magnetic attraction to the glitz and glamor the filmmakers are supposedly denouncing, dunking the viewer head first into the movie equivalent of a champagne-filled hot tub, but without a lick of the pleasure such an experience might entail. The film’s slick hollowness is thus a function of form, making Affluenza as hypocritical as the tony brats at its core.
The problem isn’t the film’s sense of rightful indignation, but rather the filmmakers’ apparent belief that their upper crustaceons are as fascinating as they are corrupt. Accordingly, a blank-faced audience surrogate named Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfeld) guides the film through its menagerie of mini-aristocrats, a schlubby weed dealer armed with a fancy vintage camera. Staying with his bellowing stockbroker uncle (Steve Guttenberg) in the Hamptons for the summer, Fisher is an oddity to his cousin, Kate (Nichola Peltz), and her lunk-headed, fedora-clad neighbor, Dylan (Gregg Sulkin.) Fisher has ambitions of going to art school, and Dylan offers to (inexplicably) help him get admitted in exchange for a shot at Kate, with whom he’s infatuated. Asch’s facility for directing his young cast isn’t nothing, but the material is so stupefyingly generic that the film can’t help but reflect its emptiness from all contours. When the kids are having fun, Mj Myrnarski’s score opts for the kind of cutesy whistle jingles you’d hear in a Purina commercial—and when the kids are sad, it’s the kind of milky piano tones you’d expect from a Prozac commercial.
Culminating in the financial meltdown unleashed by the government’s refusal to save Lehman Brothers, Affluenza’s final act is a painful barrage of hoary monologues from the up-to-now peripheral fat-cat adults in Fisher’s life. (Asch’s noxious idea of foreshadowing—littering the characters’ elite Long Island mansions with TV cameos from Bush, McCain, and Obama—works 100% against the film’s proposition of these people’s blissful heretofore ignorance.) Only an insider can vouch for whether or not Wall Street people actually use phrases like “golden parachute” and “smartest guys in the room” in day-to-day conversation, but Fisher’s journey concludes with an observation that’s even unlikelier to have actually ever been said out loud: “What’s the point of making all this money if you can’t even connect with the people you love?”