AFFLUENZA’s Strengths Outweigh Its Weaknesses

Redhead Review: Affluenza

Affluenza, the newest feature from Holy Rollers (2010) director Kevin Asch, is a fairly predictable, formulaic glimpse into the lives of entitled teens and their absent, equally spoiled parents living in Great Neck, Long Island during the summer preceding the 2008 financial crisis. The film centers specifically on middle-class teen Fischer Miller (Ben Rosenfield) who spends the summer there with his rich cousin Kate (Nicola Peltz) and her friends, selling weed to them and expertly photographing their partying exploits with an inherited vintage camera.

The film is an allegedly loose, teen-centric adaptation of The Great Gatsby but I found it to be so unwavering from this narrative and those character types that, on the whole, the film fell a little flat. But it’s just good enough still for you to wish it had been better. There are glimpses, for instance, into the humanity of these teens, humanity which is perhaps even sparser amongst their parents, but all in all, there are hints of pain and pressure in most, if not all, these characters. And it is those very hints that save many of the characters from being unlikeable or seeming fake, and yet, in many ways, these people are meant to seem fake, and that is why those moments—when the financial crisis begins, especially—are in some ways the most satisfying points in the film; they shake these people from their complacency and make us realize that the only thing connecting these people to one another was their money.

So, there is some deeper message here, and I think grounding the story in this particular cultural moment makes the film meaningful enough. But I think the film also spends a little bit too much time with its teen romances and indulges just a little bit too much in its indulgences, that those more profound moments sometimes get lost, or come across as random, only noticed by the film’s characters when it is too late—which is, perhaps, true to life, but for the film, the impact of the financial crisis and the interpersonal drama that is both related to that crisis as well as separate from it all seem to bubble dramatically and poignantly over the surface, but having had little time to stew first before coming to a head.

I’m not sure whether that had something to do with the film’s script, which at times felt natural and at other times contrived, or the pacing of the film, but I do think the film’s strengths outweigh those weaknesses. For instance, I thought the acting was great for the most part. Nicole Peltz as Kate is shallow but also endearing, and as an actress, she seems to play the part as if understanding that Kate’s behavior is a result of her parents’ relative neglect and her lavish environment and even at Kate’s pettiest, we feel a sad kind of sympathy, though not necessarily pity, for her. As the Nick Carraway figure though, Ben Rosenfield is the standout here; as Fischer, he is both mesmerized and yet unafraid of the absurd world he has entered into. He is relatable and without him as our way into this world, we would enter into it as viewers with even more difficulty.

Affluenza is entertaining enough, but also feels too familiar. Besides, it seems to be striving for something more, trying to say something about these privileged teens and their families and what is lacking when wealth is to be had and what is truly being lost when that wealth goes away. But those morals, if they’re there, are fleeting. I appreciated that we aren’t asked to judge, glorify, or admonish these characters or their lifestyles, but the impending doom of the financial crisis could have been fleshed out more, I think, and without having it seem heavy-handed either—the build-up is almost non-existent, with the exception of a flash-forward as the film’s opening scene and the way the film’s conclusion returns us to this same scene (and this framing was probably my favorite aspect of the film). I cannot argue that we don’t care about these characters or the events of the film, though; I merely felt that for a film that is depicting both extremes of glamor and decay, luxury and decline, the result was oddly average.

Director: Kevin Asch
Starring: Ben Rosenfield, Gregg Sulkin, Nicola Peltz, Grant Gustin, Samantha Mathis, Steve Guttenberg
Rating: 3 out of 5 Long Island mansion

Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way.