Consumerism is the natural by-product of capitalism. Really, it’s the natural by-product of being alive: we all need things to survive, after all. Food, housing, clothing, from beginning to end it seems it’s our natural state to consume.
But living in a capitalist society also complicates the matter, particularly since in a such a society, from its very nature, there is so much being produced and advertised to consume. Cars, technology, entertainment, experiences—it seems that for the right price, everything is for sale. Of course, this arrangement has found many discontents, and in film especially the consumerist lifestyle has been ripe for satire (ironic, given that films themselves are inessential consumer items).
Whether providing dark commentary on the dangers of consumerism, cynical denouncements as to the state of capitalism and consumerism, or even audaciously celebrating the sheer volume and luxury it provides, if you live in a capitalist society you’re heavily encouraged to engage in consumerism. It’s simply inescapable.
It’s also worth taking a closer look at to consider the ramifications of it on both a micro and macro level. With this in mind—gratis–here are 10 great movies about consumerism.
Trading Places (1983)
The world could easily be divided between two types: the haves and have nots. Those that have live comfortable lives shielded from the ugly realities of poverty, while those that have not are trapped in cycles of unemployment, substandard living conditions, and frustrated ambitions. 1983’s Trading Places takes this idea and runs with it, making a comedy out of the idea of whether nature or nurture determines a person’s place in this world.
The wealthy, powerful Duke brothers make an arbitrary bet with each other along these lines, choosing the well-heeled managing director of their brokerage firm, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Akroyd), and street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), to trade places in life to prove this point. Winthorpe is framed as a thief and philanderer, becoming disgraced and losing his fiancée, job, and house in the process, while Billy Ray is plucked from the street and handed Winthorpe’s old life.
While Winthorpe struggles on the bottom rung of society, saved only by the kindness of a prostitute (Jamie Lee Curtis), Billy Ray turns out to be adapt to the brokerage business and quickly adjusts to a better standard of living. But he overhears the Dukes’ plan to return him to the streets now that their bet’s been settled, so he seeks out Winthorpe to turn the tables on them.
A humorous look at both sides of life in a consumerist culture, Trading Places smartly identifies how social status, class, and materialism shapes the reality of one’s life in the US. While Winthorpe is initially depicted as a snob that looks down on others due to his well-appointed home, lavish wardrobe, and superficial status symbols, once he’s stripped of all of these trappings he becomes as desperate and pathetic as those he once viewed with contempt.
Similarly, Billy Ray almost immediately transforms to fit the elevated social status handed to him, significantly changing as a person as a result. A wry look at the dramatic effects consumerism and materialism can have on changing values and behaviors, Trading Places is a comedy that hits its satiric mark a little too close for comfort.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Money is at the heart of consumerism, and capitalism is the engine that makes it pump through the system. While trading services for money is a common way people make a living, sales is the quickest approach. But direct sales and making a commission from the amount sold is a difficult way to make money, and it’s often a competitive and ruthless business.
The characters in Glengarry Glen Ross know this all too well: focusing on four real estate salesman who have been given warning that all but the two top salesmen will be fired by the end of the week, the men use the leads given to them to wheedle, manipulate, and outright lie to potential prospects to sell the land of real estate developments.
Laced with profanity and detailing the desperation all of the men have as they grasp onto the only jobs the know, Glengarry Glen Ross is a dark look at how the machine of capitalism pushes people to emotional extremes just in order to survive.
Consumerism covers the micro and macro of financial transactions, and Glengarry Glen Ross is an examination of the psychology of selling to consumers—in this case, real estate, but it represents any purchasing arrangement between the sales person and the customer. These salesmen deceive their prospects, their co-workers, and even themselves all for the end goal of receiving money for a product. Whether the customer wants—or even needs—the product is nowhere near the point.
American Psycho (2000)
While 1987’s Wall Street tackled the financial industry as a profession, 2000’s American Psycho focused in on what kind of person such a profession produces—in this case, a psychotic, vain narcissist named Patrick Bateman. Set in the height of the go-go 80’s, Bateman lives an immaculately materialistic life, complete with chauffeured cars, expensive clothes, meals at the chic restaurants in Manhattan, and a tony apartment. He works in finance in a do-nothing job while making oodles of cash and, as his inner monologue states throughout the movie, despises nearly everyone in his life.
American Psycho is a pristine representation of consumerist culture in America, replicating the rampant conspicuous consumption—and the at times soulless materialism—that defined certain segments of society in the 1980’s. Bateman can list off brand names, items he owns, and music he likes without hesitation but becomes frustrated when he has to articulate his feelings–and is a homicidal maniac, to boot.
He becomes a living representation of how blind consumerism—in short, buying and owning stuff—does not a person make. Writer Bret Easton Ellis has said he based the character of Patrick Bateman on his own life at the time, which he described as “slipping into a consumerist kind of void.” Viewers will only find a void at the center of Bateman, who at first seems to by a murderous psychopath, but by the end of the movie turns out to be the victim of a hollow lifestyle that looks fantastic on the surface but only runs skin-deep.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Much like 1987s Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street is about one thing: money. Specifically, how to make a crazy amount of it and what a fun, great life it will buy you. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) smugly provides the audience with a tour of his life, starting out as a scrappy, ambitious broker and ending with an arrest for fraud by the Securities & Exchange Commission.
Along the way, he amasses a large fortune through unethical trading practices, which he uses to fund a debaucherous lifestyle that includes a healthy drug habit, scores of prostitutes, and owning estates and a luxury yacht. And the worst/best part about The Wolf of Wall Street? It makes his life look like a lot of fun.
Belfort is an unapologetic capitalist that is ultimately addicted to money: as he sees it, money is the key to unlocking the universe and all that it has to offer. He has a beautiful wife, lives an incredibly comfortable life, has insane adventures while high out of his mind on drugs, and outside of getting divorced and having to serve three years in a minimum security prison, walks away from the entire ordeal more or less the same as he was at the beginning.
Consumerism is fueled by capitalism, and The Wolf of Wall Street demonstrates just how amazing one’s life can be if they have enough money in a consumerist society. Sure, it’s an immoral, shallow, and dangerous life, but it does look like a lot of fun.
One of the first and best films about the power of media and its ability to shape perceptions of a mass audience, the core of 1976’s Network is sometimes forgotten by audiences today. But what it says about consumerism and large corporations’ dependence on the population to engage in consumerism is even more prescient now than ever.
When longtime news anchor Howard Beale snaps during a broadcast of the news on live television, the network he works for cynically exploits his obviously troubled mental state for ratings, allowing him to rant on the broadcast what he finds wrong with the world. While this initially is good for ratings, to the point where he’s given his own show, his bosses at the network—who are representative of the larger corporation that owns the network—sit him down for a little talk.
The monologue delivered by the chairman of the large corporation that runs the network, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), is a damning piece of work that rips apart the truth behind the purpose of large corporations and their relationship to the common man.
In particular, after stating that there is no America or democracy, but just corporations, he lays down this unsettling truth: “The world is a collage of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale; it has been since man crawled out of the slime.” He then orders Beale to explain to the public how the world now works, and how they should go along with it because it’s in their overall best interest.
Network speaks a lot of truth about a number of disquieting issues in the modern world: the power of media outlets, the disintegration of society and subsequent apathy of the populace, and how easily society can be deceived by a box of flickering lights.
But perhaps its most subversive ideas come in that one speech, where a very powerful man in charge of a very large and powerful corporation breaks down how human beings are little more than consumers that depend on corporations—and that this is the natural order of the universe, whether we like it or not.
Wall Street (1987)
The 1980s in the US was a decade of conspicuous consumption: the only success was excess, and the culture at large reflected this sort of rampant consumerism. Making money became a sort of new religion being followed by young urban professionals, colloquially referred to as Yuppies. Working in the financial sector and located in major metropolitan areas, these ambitious, ruthless workers were identified with high-paying jobs, fine-tailored suits, and luxury items purchased explicitly to be status symbols of their wealth and success.
Oliver Stone—always a keen observer of social trends—picked up on how these highly visible individuals and their lifestyle would one day be emblematic of the decade while also realizing the shallowness of centering one’s beliefs around consumption and making money, making 1987’s Wall Street at the height of the Yuppie movement.
Following the meteoric rise and quick fall of junior stockbroker Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), an ambitious Yuppie seeking his fortune on Wall Street. Falling under the influence of legendary investor Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas), a ruthless businessman who has all the trapping of success Bud aspires to, he uses his insider knowledge of the airline his father’s a union representative of to gain Gecko’s business.
After making some quick money, which gains him a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, a corner office, and a beautiful girlfriend, Bud has a crisis of conscience when his insider knowledge leads to an investigation by the Securities and Exchange commission and the dismantling of the company his father works for.
A cautionary tale about the danger of ambition and loss of morals in pursuit of the almighty dollar, the type of lifestyle both Bud and Gecko lead is one of shallow materialism encouraged by a consumerist culture. However, the film has had an ironic influence on young and hungry stockbrokers who admire Gecko’s ruthlessness and has become synonymous with the idea of naked capitalist ambition.
Maybe the most direct film on this list to address the unbelievably damaging effects of rampant consumerism, 2008’s WALL-E—a Pixar creation meant for children but obviously appeals to a wider audience—makes the environmental effects of unchecked consumerism its main thesis. WALL-E is a small robot—perhaps the last in existence—who was left behind on earth after all the humans left the planet in a futile attempt to somehow clean the over-polluted earth.
Environmentalists can rightly feel more than a little unnerved in its depiction of a world that’s become one large garbage dump, but WALL-E’s smartest satire is reserved for its commentary on how rampant consumerism can create a placated, lazy populace. Although the disastrous after-effects of the throwaway culture consumerism is what destroyed Earth’s environment to the point of no longer being habitable, the lifestyle of the remaining human beings—who orbit the planet in a gigantic luxury spaceship—suggests that nothing was learned.
Everyone is grossly overweight, hover around in floating chairs and sipping on gigantic containers of liquid food as robots encourage their slothful life. Dazed by their personalized holographic displays, surrounded by ads, and with their bodies atrophied due to extreme inactivity, the most horrifying depiction in WALL-E may not be Earth’s ruined environment but how the human population allowed itself to become consumed by consumerism.
Falling Down (1993)
Living in over-commercialized Western society can drive people a little…nuts. Especially in America, where it’s difficult to go anywhere or do anything without having to spend money or have some sort of financial transaction take place, people who are already on-edge can be pushed over due to this endless barrage of commercialism. 1993’s Falling Down shows just this, as an estranged father who’s been laid off snaps one day and begins a walk across Los Angeles as he takes out his frustrations on the modern world.
Foster is recently divorced. His wife has a restraining order against him, but he wants to attend his daughter’s birthday party that day. After being laid off and having the air conditioning stop working in his car, he abandons it in traffic and begins to trek across LA towards his daughter’s party. When a store owner refuses to give him change for the phone, he rants against the high prices of the store and smashes up the place.
When he tries to order breakfast at a fast food restaurant, only to be informed they have just switched to the lunch menu, he fires a gun and menaces the employees. When a payphone stops working, he shoots it to pieces. In short, Foster is acting out every fantasy frustrated consumers have experienced—but would never actually do.
Enjoyable for the cathartic scenes where Foster (played with intensity by Michael Douglas) is taking his rage out on the over-commercialized, consumerist nightmare everyone is confronted with on a daily basis, Falling Down is also the kind of movie that would never be made today, depicting a man that snaps and violently takes his revenge on the petty annoyances of day-to-day life.
They Live (1988)
Obey. Submit. Sleep. Consume. While on the surface the billboards, newspapers, and television programs in 1988’s They Live look like everyday items, if you wear a special pair of glasses their true intent is uncovered: they are hypnotic suggestions being disseminated to human beings by aliens that have infiltrated the human race and secretly control it. This is what a drifter (wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) discovers in John Caprenter’s satirical sci-fi classic that suggests how media is conditioning us to become mindless consumers.
After the drifter puts on a pair of sunglasses that uncovers the actual subliminal messaging in the media output, he begins a quest—being aided by a small group of resistance fighters–to destroy a radio tower that’s transmitting a frequency that hides the alien’s true grotesque forms.
While the film is notable for its incredibly long fight scene between Piper and Keith David, its iconic representation of subliminal messages being hidden in billboards and newspapers that order the human populace to be unquestioning consumers holds a potent message of the power of media and the unsettling ramifications of what consumerism means between the average person and the major corporate and governmental powers that encourage it.
Fight Club (1999)
While the 1990’s were a great decade for America, with economic prosperity at an all-time high, the culture was also drowning in consumerism. This inspired a sort of backlash among the youth of the country, particularly young men who felt displaced and disconnected from their instinctual nature as hunter-gatherers.
1999’s Fight Club addresses this issue head-on, although satirizing this elusive sense of ennui by portraying a group of American men attempting to reclaim their autonomy and masculinity by engaging in corporate sabotage and subterfuge. Specifically, taking on—and tackling—consumerism and totems of capitalism is a cornerstone aim of Project Mayhem, led by loose cannon Tyler Durden, who rallies his army of the disaffected by articulating this very condition, stating:
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
Sardonic and grim, Fight Club became a popular cult film that many young men took at face value, ignoring the dangerous nihilism at its core and that Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the book the film is based on, was commenting on how extremism and cult of personality is just as dangerous as any other sort of ideology.
Watched now in the 21st century, viewers can read the film as being either shockingly prescient of the rising tide of apathy consumerism inspires in Western societies or a naïve commentary produced in a culture that didn’t know how good they had it until it all came crashing down just a few years later.
This article was originally published on December 11, 2017 on Taste of Cinema.