Nick Squires

Is Sydney the Paris Hilton of international cities - vain, shallow and materialistic? It's not a new proposition but it's been given renewed vigour by a book just published by British psychologist and author Oliver James.

James spent time in seven countries for his book Affluenza, which proposes that despite galloping material wealth, none of us is getting any happier. He was recently in Australia flogging his new tome and maintains the curse of 'affluenza' is worse in Sydney than just about anywhere else.

He pronounced the Harbour City the most vacuous of places - 'the Dolly Parton' of Australian cities.

Sydneysiders are morally bankrupt and spiritually empty, James contends, obsessed with money, status and looks.

The doubling of property prices since 1997 has put a decent house out of the reach of many, spreading insecurity and anxiety and compelling young couples to work ever longer hours in the elusive pursuit of the perfect home.

The average local is painfully insecure, obsessing about personal appearance, slaving away at the gym and constantly worried that other people have better lives.

Reading, religion and intellectual rigour have been discarded in favour of acquiring flat-screen TVs, gas-guzzling 4-wheel-drives and the latest iPod.

It's a profoundly depressing picture which set off a fierce debate and a round of collective navel-gazing on a Sydney Morning Herald online forum. Many people criticised James for peddling cliches which possibly applied to the Eastern Suburbs and North Shore but not the whole city. Paddington and Bondi might be full of manicured yummy mummies drinking skinny de-caf lattes, but venture into the western suburbs and the picture is different, they said.

Sydney was no less shallow than many other international cities. Los Angeles, Tokyo and Dubai - 'candyland' as one reader described it - were particularly singled out.

'You think Sydney is vacuous?' asked reader Tiu Fu Fong. 'Try Hong Kong, where the only hobbies are shopping, eating and karaoke.'

And what about all those surveys of international tourists which routinely rate Sydney as one of the world's favourite and most liveable cities? Legions of American and European visitors can't be wrong. But many others agreed with James that for all its physical beauty - or perhaps because of it - Sydney has become a city of mortgage-obsessed materialists with the collective cerebral curiosity of a gnat.

'I've lived in cities all over the English-speaking world - in London, in Cape Town, in Auckland - and I can truly say Sydney is the most beautiful, and the most vacuous,' one reader wrote.

The debacle of the cross-city tunnel and the state government allowing slot machines, or pokies, in shopping centres were cited as examples of greed getting the better of good governance.

Time spent with family and friends is being eroded by gridlocked roads, stressful daily commutes and woefully unreliable trains.

A water crisis, worsening air pollution from cars and an acute lack of affordable housing completes the picture.

James was right when he describes middle-class Sydney as being 'packed with career-obsessed workaholics'. Once the land of the long lunch and the early Friday finish, Australians now endure some of the longest hours in the developed world.

Sydney may look great but for too many people its picture-postcard image is a far cry from the daily grind. Like Paris Hilton, the city is lovely to look at - but can be a nightmare to live with.