Film and the American Dream

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The American Nightmare in American Beauty

   There have been countless movies since the invention of film in the late 1800's that have exemplified or addressed the American Dream. From silent classics such as Birth of a Nation or The Kid to more modern films like Cinderella Man or The Wolf of Wallstreet. Each has a slightly different perspective on the American Dream, some celebrating it while modern films increasingly criticize it. But perhaps no film represents the state of the American Dream in our society today than American Beauty.
  
   American Beauty is a film about Lester Burnham, his family, and neighbors. Lester works a boring office for an ad agency, and basically hates his life. His family has seemingly acquired the American Dream. Lester has a "good job" despite hating it, they own a lovely house complete with white picket fence, and seem to be like any other middle class American family. However despite being relatively well off in the middle class and having many physical possessions, there is an undercurrent of anger, frustration, and discontent within the entire family. this can be seen in how Carolyn, Lester's wife, has to psych herself up for her workday as a realtor just to have a private meltdown at the end.
Lester himself eventually breaks free of his mundane life and starts trying to live free of the social and societal burdens that have been weighing him down. He quits his job in a spectacular fashion and begins living the life he always dreamed of. He works out, acts out, and has not too virtuous fantasies about his daughter's friend, which he hopes to live out. 
One of the iconic scenes in the film is of course the floating plastic bag scene. Lester's daughter becomes romantically involved with the neighbor boy, who almost compulsively films everything he sees. He tells her that he wants to show her the most beautiful thing he has ever recorded. That clip is of a plastic bag caught in a tiny sort of tornado. The wind keeps swirling the bag around a concrete courtyard. This is perhaps a great metaphor for the American Dream. The most beautiful thing he saw was a plastic bag, a synecdoche of our consumerism, floating around, notably empty. This signifies that all of our industrialization and consumerism is hopelessly empty, and only the wind, nature, acting on the remains of a past purchase, has any meaning. This is the crux of the film. When you have achieved the American dream of commercialism and capitalism yet society keeps urging you to want more and climb higher on the social ladder, where does one find meaning?