I want to be clear that the point of my comments is not Alec Soth, all I've seen of his work is one image but it is representative of a type of work I am seeing a lot and do not appreciate.
Elaborate lighting? No, lighting does not have to be elaborate for it to be good. Something as simple as window light, candle light, dappled light through leaves, etc are about as un-elaborate as you can get. But they're also beautiful, define form, shape and texture, can clue you in to the surrounding environment, can set a mood.
Pretty people? Where do you think I believe that photos of people require that those people be pretty?
As for formulas, I don't believe in them. However I do feel that giving thought to content, composition , lighting, texture, timing, etc is a good place to start.
Personally I'm just tired of seeing photos that seem to have been executed randomly by a robot and then justified with an essay long legal brief justifying their merit.
If you want to see someone whose work blows me away check out Fan Ho.