In the 1997 PBS documentary film Affluenza, producer John de Graaf comments on the current state of the United States’ consumer culture, focusing on shopping malls as the center of society’s materialism. From the film’s perspective, our communities’ excessive rates of consumption signify a growing epidemic–a contagious and inflammatory disease called “affluenza.” The film approaches the discussion of the epidemic using both comedy and drama to emphasize the absurd nature of our current consumer habits. It points out that Americans alone account for nearly half of the world’s hazardous waste while using up almost a third of its resources, alone. Americans make up only about five percent of the world population.
To combat the overriding materialistic culture, Affluenza aims to highlight people who choose to live simplistic lifestyles in order to prompt consumers to recognize the merits of cutting down on consumption. By juxtaposing the absurdity of over-consumption to the benefits of simple living, the film encourages people who are guilty of “Affluenza” to consider how their actions impact the environment and contribute to shaping a materialistic society.
Distributed as the first part of a PBS television series promoting awareness of the Affluenze epidemic, the hour-long documentary film also suggests that the epidemic includes more than excessive buying, but a deterioration of formerly traditional societal values, causing more stress, debt, economic inequality, and the erosion of the importance of family and community among other negative social consequences.
By using tactics that simultaneously mock consumerism while calling attention to the severity of it as an increasing phenomenon, the film forced me to consider where I fall in the realm of consumerism. I have never counted myself among the materialistic. However, just being “less” consumption-prone than others does not make my own habits of consumption either acceptable or sustainable. It helped me to see the ways in which I continue to over-purchase and to place more value the wrong things.
I buy things that I do not need, I do not spend enough time with my family. Even when I do, I am often somewhere else mentally, either texting on my phone or in a rush to be elsewhere rather than enjoying the present company in that particular moment. Through the juxtaposition between complicated consumer living and simple living the documentary shows us how objects do not bring happiness, but that building lasting relationships with our families and friends, with our environments and our communities do. Sustainable rates of consumption relate directly to sustainable relationships.
Here’s a link to watch the film if interested: