There, on the back of a magazine, is another whoa moment, an advertising image so absurd that you have to double back in disbelief. Tearing by the Berlin Wall in a limousine is Mikhail Gorbachev with a Louis Vuitton monogrammed travel bag at his side, the Keepall 60 to be exact, $920 plus tax.

The former leader of the unfree world has adopted the style of a nouveau-riche lady. All that's missing is the tiny dog.

Gorbachev and Vuitton are making donations to Al Gore's Climate Project and Green Cross International, the environmental group founded by the former Soviet president. The giant French luxury-goods parent company LVMH, which reaped almost $17 billion in the first three quarters of 2007, has declined to disclose the amount.

Green is such a hackneyed marketing tool this season as to be so much compost, a touchy-feely tease to reap more of the only green that matters - euros, though the bills come in a bouquet of understandably festive colors.

With Vuitton abandoning plum-mouthed starlets like Scarlett Johansson for former Communist bears, what might be next? Hugo Chavez in Hugo Boss with a fetching red beret? Fidel Castro in a Ralph Lauren bush jacket?

Consumerism and labels are the international language of success, the way to distinguish oneself by looking like everyone else. You haven't really made it in today's global acquisitional bazaar until you've spent way too much for canvas sporting someone else's initials.

Last month, Russia hosted the third annual Moscow Millionaire Fair - a characteristically understated title - with such must-have products as a $9,591 gold-plated coffeemaker, a $70,000 mattress woven with gold thread, and a $1.2 million jewel-encrusted Vertu phone.

Organizers claim that at the inaugural event, one formally attired guest passed out from "luxury shock," which can happen after almost a century of beets and potatoes. This season, Millionaire Fair crowned "The Golden 100 of the Capital's Society," not quite Mrs. Astor's 400 but certainly on the road to a plutocrat utopia.

Then again, if the United States no longer has a Mrs. Astor, why can't Russia have its Madame Ksenia Sobchak, Moscow's "most frequently invited lady of the year"?

Russia is the new Wild West, with a breed of hedge-fund managers who may be besting ours in rampant consumerism. If the former chief of the Soviet Communist Party wants to be used in the name of luxury goods and charity, then that's his choice, though the move seems beyond bizarre.

Charity does not begin with a costly Annie Leibovitz photo shoot or a $920 monogrammed Louis Vuitton bag. It begins with a direct act toward the designated organization.

One month's pink is the next one's green, creating color-coded obfuscation of conflicting intentions and diluted goodwill.

The shop-for-a-good-cause movement, buy this thing and an undesignated portion will go to charity, shows no sign of abating, but the emphasis is all on the shop with the satin bow being goodwill.

Sometimes a handbag, even a $920 Keepall 60, is simply a handbag.

'Tis the season, the all-important fourth quarter, to be merry, to receive and to give. If you want to give, great. Write a check to the organization - for starters, try theclimateproject.org - so all the proceeds go to the cause. Donate the time, the services, the goods.

Don't fool yourself that an extravagant handbag will alter anything in the world other than your appearance for better or, in Mikhail Gorbachev's case, worse.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at go.philly.com/karenheller.