Ripping to shreds Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop gift list has been a media preoccupation for years now, to the point that the website even titles it, “The ridiculous but awesome gift guide”. Still, even those not driven by well-documented animus towards Paltrow (there should be a healing crystal for this, it’s so intense) have objected to the $15,000 vibrator sheathed in 24-carat gold. I’ve spent ages down a rabbit hole, trying to work out what kind of person might require a gold vibrator, and the closest thing I can come up with is someone whose kink is being obscenely rich. But no way is that anyone’s kink.

Others have objected to the idiosyncrasies: a gong-fascination that includes not just a $2,000 gong, but also gong workshops with a personal gong trainer. A nearly $400 parmesan looks like a standard out-of-touch slap in the face to pauperised normies everywhere. The most expensive gift, nearly $40,000 for a single night at a Fijian eco resort, hit all the buttons of Great Gatsby profligacy and a high net worth culture so untethered to state or nation that place becomes backdrop, locals mere extras. It’s Marie Antoinette’s mock village rebooted: the eco resort.

But one comment on Reddit struck me: “If [Gwyneth] someday comes out and says that this entire persona was an intricate piece of performance art, I would support her getting an Oscar just for that.” Defined in its broadest sense by the theorist Jonah Westerman in 2016, performance art is “not (and never was) a medium, not something that an artwork can be, but rather a set of questions and concerns about how art relates to people and the wider social world”.

The gold vibrator included in Goop’s gift guide.
Obscenely rich kink … the gold vibrator included in Goop’s gift guide. Photograph: Goop

Paltrow started Goop in 2008 as a portal for the informed, aspirational, global consumer. It was never paid-for, so it wasn’t elitist in that sense, and there were always things on it, recipes and whatnot, that most people could afford. Yet it was completely unabashed, as Paltrow has been in interviews and seminars, in peddling goods with the highest imaginable price and often the lowest conceivable real-life value. Parking the new age woo-woo momentarily (the seven-day detoxes, the walking barefoot to cure depression, the vagina steaming), there is a provocation here or at the very least a disconnect – it was 2008. For the first time, certainly since Paltrow had been alive, a global financial crisis had left many questioning whether capitalism could survive. There was a genuine sense, which did not – you may have noticed – pan out, that the system might radically reform itself in that crisis. Into that maelstrom, Paltrow dropped her vision of luxury that was so preposterous it is surprising we didn’t immediately see it as a critique of consumption itself. Did she raise a set of questions and concerns about how pointless stuff relates to people and the wider world? Hell, yeah.

The wellness content on Goop burgeoned, and over time, began to rankle and then enrage medics, notably Dr Jen Gunter, the Canadian gynaecologist and specialist in chronic pain and vulvovaginal disorders. Concerned for public health, Gunter devoted herself to debunking Gwyneth’s nonsense online: “Tampons are not vaginal death sticks, vegetables with lectins are not killing us, vaginas don’t need steaming, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) does not cause every thyroid disease and for fuck’s sake, no one needs to know their latex farmer; what they need to know is that the only thing between them and HIV or gonorrhea is a few millimeters of latex.”

One thing Paltrow emphatically isn’t is a reputable source of public health information. The New York Times journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner attended a Goop conference and described its mission: “Anyone from an acupuncturist to a psychic to an endocrinologist to a psychologist addressed questions that the modern woman couldn’t seem to find answers to: why am I so unhappy? Why am I so tired? Why am I so fat? Why don’t I want to have sex any more?” Which, laid out flat, looks like not even a new-age medical intervention, but a chainsaw to another pillar of capitalism: that all your problems, if you’d just look inside with some expert guidance, are yours to fix. Plainly, they are not; sometimes you need to hear a psychic say something to realise it isn’t true.

Gong galore … a $2,000 gong.
Gong galore … a $2,000 gong. Photograph: Goop

Paltrow performed a kind of jiu-jitsu move after the obs-gynaes came after her, describing all the criticism as a “cultural firestorm”, as it always will be “when it’s about a woman’s vagina”. It’s true she has talked about vaginas a lot, not just the steaming, but also the jade egg – for which Goop faced legal action over the unscientific claim that it was a good idea to stick it up there – and the candle called This Smells Like My Vagina. The indignation against the candle wasn’t predominantly about medical accuracy – some of it was more about disgust for women’s bodies – playing back into Paltrow’s point that it was the territory, not the content, that was the problem. Because, really, what is it to you if Paltrow likes a candle that smells like her vagina? Nobody said you had to buy it.

A deliberate promotion of the afactual … Goop’s “bio frequency” stickers.
A deliberate promotion of the afactual … Goop’s “bio frequency” stickers. Photograph: BodyVibes

In fact, these provocations seem to go online merely to be falsified quickly afterwards. Take rectal ozone therapy which, for those who haven’t been keeping up, involves delivering the gas up the colon via a catheter, something that she told the podcast The Art of Being Well this year was the weirdest wellness procedure she’d ever had. The US Food and Drug Administration says that ozone is a toxic gas with no known useful medical application in specific, adjunctive or preventive therapy. In 2017, Goop promoted “bio frequency” stickers that apparently “rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies” and were allegedly made out of Nasa space suit material. Almost immediately, Nasa said it didn’t use any such materials in its space suits. “Wow, what a load of BS this is,” a former scientist at Nasa, Mark Shelhamer, told Gizmodo.

This is not merely woo-woo but more a deliberate promotion of the afactual. It’s only explicable in literal terms if we assume Paltrow is a dunce, which I don’t think we can. She is, after all (I keep forgetting), also an actor, and a much better one than most.

If we assume, conversely, that Paltrow is engaged in an elaborate cultural taunt, then it recalls almost all of Susan Sontag’s description of the Happenings of the 1960s. These performances, mainly by artists and some by academics, had, she wrote, “no plot … shunning continuous rational discourse, though it may contain words like ‘help’”. These were arguably the origin of the performance art form (dadaists, we can pick this up another time). The Happening often seems to “tease and abuse the audience”, Sontag noted. It might sprinkle water on them, surround them with atonal noise, pelt them with gravel or manure, deny them full sight of the action, certainly deny them any logic or narrative. “This abusive involvement of the audience seems to provide, in default of anything else, the dramatic spine of the Happening.” Seriously, what is rectal ozone therapy if not a happening? What is the affront to reason if not its dramatic spine?

Another key element of a happening is that it would involve the person “as a material object” (Sontag again), rather than a character – people were often made to look like objects, wrapped in muslin or paper – and again, this has echoes of Goop. From the $135 coffee enema to the bee sting therapy, these practices – objectively pointless, psychologically compelling – ultimately treat the body as a material object, rather than an organism.

And, of course, the signature of performance art, the one thing that we all know about it: it cannot be bought, it can only be experienced. Which is true, if not of all Goop, then possibly of the gift guide: is anybody really dropping $15,000 on a vibrator?

Even her divorce was beautiful … Paltrow and Chris Martin pictured together in 2014.
Even her divorce was beautiful … Paltrow and Chris Martin pictured together in 2014. Photograph: Colin Young-Wolff/Invision/AP

By 2013, Paltrow was an established love/hate figure, most fervently in the US, where Vanity Fair commissioned a cover story on her to discuss why she was so “polarising”. But the magazine’s editor, Graydon Carter, pulled the piece, not only because Paltrow had reportedly got wind of it and told her celebrity friends to “never do this magazine again”, but because the piece was, Carter said: “Such a far cry from the almost mythical story that people were by now expecting – the ‘epic takedown’ filled with ‘bombshell’ revelations – that it was bound to be a disappointment.” It was almost an apology: sorry, folks, we simply didn’t find the evidence to back up your hating her as much as you do.

People often try to trace the roots of this animus back to Paltrow’s sheer perfection. She owes who she is, all her success (the theory goes), to the fact that we all want to be her, and she flogs us that dream, knowing that we can never achieve it, that she is just too extraordinary. Everything about her, her lifestyle, her wealth, her children, her skin, her body, everything, right down to her divorce from the Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, is beautiful (they had an uncoupling ceremony where they threw pebbles into the sea. It was beautiful!). It’s a kind of Ponzi scheme, in the sense that it takes a lot of us mugs to buy into it, to assure her as the only real winner. I suppose that would generate a certain amount of resentment.

But what if she has monetised not the hopeless dreams of fools but the spectacle of ridiculousness itself? While she clearly has made a decent profit out of the US wellness industry, which is worth an estimated $450bn and growing, it seems unlikely she has done all this for the money (I refer you back to the acting career, which did just fine). I wouldn’t be surprised if she set fire to it all, like the KLF. I wouldn’t be surprised if she thought that billionaires are tacky. I wouldn’t be surprised by anything, except if it turns out she really means it.

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