Director Kevin Asch’s film, “Affluenza,” is about a “disease” that seems to strike people with too much money and too much time but not enough of a moral compass to guide them. Its symptoms are a sense of entitlement and self-indulgence.
The movie is set in Great Gatsby country, on Long Island’s Gold Coast, where an aspiring photographer, Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfield), from upstate New York, moves in with his aunt and uncle while he applies to college in Manhattan. It is his first exposure to a world seemingly without limits on both wealth and behavior — until the financial crisis hits.
“Affluenza” is an extremely personal film for Asch, 38, who grew up in that milieu. For him, the movie is as much an exercise in therapy as in filmmaking. He spoke to the Forward about the trials of his own Long Island upbringing, how film helped him through his alienation, and why he can now move on.
Curt Schleier: The production notes say growing up you were “grappling with personal questions about my family shattering and how growing up in an affluent community led to such great expectations and such pressures.” Can you give us some more details?
Kevin Asch: My parents began their divorce proceedings when I was 13, shortly after my bar mitzvah. We’d moved from a home where I grew up, that almost felt like a Norman Rockwell [house] with money. My parents wanted to move up to something that was bigger and more luxurious. The move was a metaphor for fixing something that was already broken. This was a lot of pressure for me to handle as a young man and I sunk into a depression for many years trying to deal with the changes in my life. My innocence burst when I was pretty young.
My dad had a hard time with the divorce. He made it clear to me he was not financially sound. Money became this thing that hung over our relationship. My father made me feel guilty that I would be living a life that he can’t live. [Kevin’s maternal grandfather was Robert Half, the wealthy flounder of what became a national employment agency.] When my parents told me they were getting a divorce, the first thing I said is: “Is dad going to be okay?” That’s not a normal reaction for a child.
How was it with your friends?
The amount of money your family had was related to your popularity. [After the divorce], I couldn’t connect with some of the kids I grew up with. I wanted to be an artist and I wasn’t like them at all. Those were the things I struggled with as a young man.
And you found solace with a camera?
I always wanted to be a filmmaker. By the time I was 11 I knew that. I always walked around with a video camera or a still camera. I started to write and explore my emotions. My mother found this child psychologist who became more of a mentor to me. He helped me explore what I was going through and he was the only adult who told me, “You need to be a filmmaker.”
So I guess you’re a lot like Fisher.
Yeah I relate more to Fisher, but I was a little like Dylan (Gregg Sulkin), [a super wealthy character who was largely unsupervised by his parents]. At one point, Gregg and Ben came over to me and asked, “Are we playing two halves of you?” My mother remarried this very successful guy from Wall Street and we moved to his estate. They’re very happily married, but it was really a bottom for me, not a top. I was living in a house I was told wasn’t mine. I was very much like Dylan, having parties. People would look at me and think my life couldn’t be any better. But I couldn’t have been more depressed. Fisher ultimately survives. He knows what to do. He has a father, as much as their relationship is strained, who provides him with strong values.
Fisher certainly is the most sympathetic character, but he was a drug dealer.
He wasn’t really a dealer. He did a lot of self-medicating [with weed] and provided it as a social lubricant. He wasn’t a dealer. And I like the idea of the anti-hero. He’s a good person.
Your debut feature, “Holy Rollers,” also involved unsavory Jews, Hasidic drug mules. Do you see a connection?
I was really conscious of that. I wanted to tell these New York stories, these modern stories about modern Jews. For the Hasidim, their grandfathers wanted to recreate this old world that turned a blind eye to the modern and kept the old values. My grandparents came to Great Neck to embrace the Reform world, not the old-world values. But both for Sam Gold [the Jesse Eisenberg Character in “Holly Rollers”] and Fisher, these are coming of age stories, so I see a connection there. On a personal level now, I feel I can move on and close the book on coming of age stories.