The New Cinema of Stuff

Materialism at the movies, just the way you like it

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But Hilton's closet looks like a boutique, and Gatsby, in a way, is one. 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; it also partnered with Warner Bros. on promotion.

The Science of Stuff

It may not be a coincidence that the number of films with consumerist viewpoints is on the rise. In fact, a recent psychological study offers a possible explanation of why filmmakers are embracing consumerism as a visual device--and what that means for those of us who pay for a peep.

Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College and the author of The High Price of Materialism, says he's not surprised by directors who choose to linger on images of glitzy stuff, because that's what today's viewers demand. "If these images are in the movie in order to attract people, that's a good choice," he says.

Kasser's latest paper, co-authored with Jean M. Twenge and published in May in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, finds that teenagers have become more materialistic in their attitudes. Fewer than half of the 12th-graders surveyed in the late 1970s said it was important to have a lot of money, but 62% of seniors polled in 2005--07 answered that it was. Equally dramatic are the shifting views of youth on stuff itself; among those surveyed, the importance of owning a new car every two to three years has jumped 27% since the '70s.

Though the paper's most recent data is from 2007, Kasser says the conditions that breed materialism have been prevalent since the 2008 crash: financial or family insecurity, when paired with pervasive advertising, heightens materialism later in life. That same research also found that the increasing desire for stuff has been inversely related to a desire to work for it--which, if it weren't an academic study, would sound like an oversimplified summary of The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers.

"It's not just a matter of, Oh, here are these films showing this stuff," Kasser says. "To the extent these films reflect and encourage a more materialistic value system, they're encouraging a set of values that the research suggests are associated with lower happiness, less civil society and less [ecologically] sustainable behavior."

It's no spoiler to say that the criminals in The Bling Ring get caught or that all the shirts in the world can't bring Gatsby true love. Characters in these films are confronted with the emptiness of the "materialistic myth," a term used by James A. Roberts, author of Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy, to summarize the flawed belief that stuff equals worth.

Despite these harsh awakenings for the characters, research shows that dark denouements don't necessarily make a difference to the viewer. Even if the films are artistic critiques of materialism, 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."

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