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Is 'The Great Gatsby' a Movie or a Shopping Promo?

Baz Lurhmann's new film makes style the star and substance the understudy.
 
 
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It’s good to see a fine book in style this year. But are we focusing on the book, or the style? Baz Lurhmann’s new movie version of The Great Gatsby opens today, and unfortunately, its obsessive attention to glittering gowns, sumptuous suits and deco trappings makes style the star and substance the understudy.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a book about the very nasty things that happen when we set money as the marker of our value. But you wouldn’t know it from Lurhmann’s film, which celebrates the love of wealth and comes with more shopping tie-ins than the beads in Daisy’s dress.

Glamour! Excess! Hedonism! These are the words that repeat themselves in endless ads associated with the film’s release. High-end brands are practically characters in the movie, with appearances by Prada, Miu Miu, Tiffany and Brooks Brothers. French lace-maker Solstiss produced 1,400 meters of lace in deco patterns for the costumes. Daisy Buchanan is a walking display of runway-ready styles and glittering jewels. Her diamond-studded Tiffany headpiece retails for $200,000, if you need ideas for Mother’s Day.

All is designed to make you hit the stores the minute you leave the theater. Brooks Brothers has its own “Gatsby web experience,” complete with “behind the scenes video” featuring clips from the movie and discussion of the “partnership” between the clothing giant and the film.

The tie-ins don’t stop with the bling. Hotel advertisements tempt you to “ live the life of Gatsby” (which presumably does not include his horrible end) at any number of swank retreats. For the bibliophile traveler, the Chatwal New York provides copies of the novel in each sumptuously appointed room (hey, it beats cable!). Not to be outdone, the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, Kentucky, touts the fact that Fitzgerald used it as a backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan's wedding as a selling point.

But Donald Trump wins the prize for all-out shamelessness, offering a $14,999 three-night stay at Trump New York, which comes with dinner at Jean-Georges, a bracelet designed by Ivanka Trump and a bottle of bubbly.

When you look at current consumer trends, all this swooning over luxury makes a perverse kind of sense. Despite the fact that most of us are mighty worried about our economic well-being, wealthy America is experiencing what Brad Tuttle at Time calls the “ Splurge Surge.”

“They’re going on shopping sprees,” Tuttle writes, “.....with increasing sales seen for luxury hotel stays, high-end automobiles, and more.” Polls show that the rich really don’t think the economy is recovering, but they’re spending anyway. The reason is simple:  From 2009 to 2011, the mean net worth of households in the top 7 percent rose by 28 percent. Everbody else’s dropped by 4 percent over this same time period. There’s still a recession happening, just not for them. Whoopie!

A movie like The Great Gatsby conspires to make the 99 percent forget our credit card debt and join the rich in a shopping spree. Maybe we'll get the down-market version of Daisy's dress, but we'll think, for a moment, that we're getting a piece of the action ( Seventeen magazine highlights a variety of 1920s-style prom dresses in the $300-$600 range). All is well and good until the bill arrives.

The last time America saw such a disconnect between the experiences of the rich and the rest was, of course, the Roaring Twenties. Which ended very badly, just like Gatsby’s race to the top of the capitalist heap.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.