My recent perusal of Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels brings out another critique of post-war America, which is the erosion of religion in public life.
Today much of this blame falls on the Baby Boomers, but Thompson himself was born in 1937, and I think much of the loss of faith can be blamed on the unprecedented prosperity in America following World War II.
A general historical principle is that affluence and prosperity breed decadence and depravity. Being afflicted by the mortal sin of pride, humans naturally turn from the divine and attribute their success to their own cleverness and intellect. Only fools still follow the old ways, which limit both human imagination and the scope of available pleasure.
The Old Testament is chock full of examples, and records of other peoples in different cultures confirm the same tendency. Contemporary accounts of prosperous reigns almost always include a lamentation that the gods and their morals are being neglected.
It this was true of the US, but with two key additions. The first was the sheer scale of wealth, which gave common people a quality of life beyond the reach of the super-rich as recently as a half-century ago. While the Robber Barons of the gilded age might have had a luxurious estate and gold utensils, they didn't have x-rays, antibiotics or radios. To evade the heat, they had to retreat to an estate on the lake or in the foothills, but by the 60s and 70s, air condition was something middle class people had.
The second was the pervasive influence of the Puritan founding. Though their religious practice is all but forgotten, their beliefs regarding individual success and failure endure. Put simply, people who are doing well are seen as morally superior to those who have failed. Whereas this was once seen as a sign that they were among God's Elect, it has increasingly been folded into the secular concept of the "meritocracy," the notion that the best and brightest should be accorded more prestige and therefore power.
This no doubt fueled Thompson's hatred of the middle class, since he keenly felt the stigma of not achieving conventional measures of success.
He also detested what he considered their primitive and dull-witted adherence to the old moral codes. His writing (and that of his contemporaries) generally sneers at organized religions. In this telling, religious people are either hypocrites (and often running a racket) or simply too stupid to sin.
Thompson himself is something of an aesthete - sampling drugs like rare vintages of wine. It's interesting that he regarded the Kentucky Derby as "decadent and depraved" but felt much more at home among the Hell's Angels or various hippie communes.
The problem with society wasn't immorality, but morality itself. If people would just back off, stop judging and enjoy life, everything would work out fine. It was the stuffed shirts who ruined everything. This is the ethos of Caddyshack.
That's all when and good when one is young and carefree, but it ultimately doesn't satisfy the soul. The significance of The Big Chill was that it was the first warning to the Boomers that the party would eventually end.
At that point, it was the rubes who went to church who were having the last laugh while the materialists frantically try various cosmetic and health procedures to preserve their youth.
I've written about Carly Simon's semi-conversion, but John Voight's change is even more profound and striking. In the 1970, he was making edgy fare like Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, but he's now offering public prayers for the salvation of the nation.
There's a hint of Evelyn Waugh about that, and one of the great might-have-beens is if Thompson had a similar conversion. Alas, he shut himself completely off from God. Even his funeral was a mockery of religious observance.
Ultimately, that's where materialism leads. At some point the drugs no longer produce the same highs, one's possessions seem old and tawdry and the end of football season looms (Thompson's suicide note actually cited this as part of his depression). At that point, the god of the two-car garage falls silent.