Paris Hilton and Josh Ostrovsky in The American Meme (Photo: Bert Marcus Productions)

THE AMERICAN MEME
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Bert Marcus
STARS Paris Hilton, Brittany Furlan

In the 1991 documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare, there’s a scene in which Warren Beatty guffaws at the Material Girl’s reluctance to discuss a matter away from the cameras that are perpetually rolling.

As Madonna glares angrily at her then-boyfriend, Beatty notes, “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there in existing?”

That, in a nutshell, appears to be the defining philosophy of the figures found in The American Meme, a new documentary that debuts on Netflix December 7. Directed by Bert Marcus, the film looks at those celebrities who are famous just for being famous, and who have often parlayed their 15 (sometimes 20) minutes of fame into media-savvy empires. Running 90 minutes, it’s both entertaining and infuriating — or, to be more specific, it’s an entertaining movie about several infuriating people.

Madonna herself can be spotted fleetingly in The American Meme, although she’s not one of the centers of attention. After all, she has genuine talent to burn (in the music field if not in the acting arena; ever see Shanghai Surprise or Body of Evidence?), a claim that doesn’t really apply to any of the neo-celebrities featured in this film. Actually, scratch that. Brittany Furlan, having no luck as an actress, turned to the now-extinct platform Vine and began posting short videos in which she displayed her fearless comedic chops by portraying a wide range of characters. Soon, she was the number one star on Vine. After the social media app was deep-sixed by parent company Twitter, it wouldn’t have been difficult envisioning her in rotation on Saturday Night Live. (Alas, they never called, and she’s now engaged to former Mötley Crüe rocker Tommy Lee, seen here declaring his love by picking her nose and eating the by-product. Ah, l’amour…)

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Kirill Bichutsky in The American Meme (Photo: Bert Marcus Productions)

Kirill Bichutsky also seems to possess a modicum of talent … as a photographer. But his claim to online fame arrived after he began shooting beautiful women receiving “champagne facials” at big-city hot spots. Adopting the moniker Slut Whisperer, Kirill then began posting basically every inane and offensive comment that entered his perpetually booze-soaked mind. He thus emerged as the bad-boy comic that everyone either loves or loves to hate.

Other insta-celebrities are interviewed and examined by Marcus over the course of the film, including Josh Ostrovsky (better known as the Fat Jewish), musician and record producer DJ Khaled, and stand-up comedian Dane Cook. On the other side of the aisle – in short, offering the only voice of reason in the entire film — is Matthew Felker, who became famous from appearing in the Britney Spears music video “Toxic,” didn’t like the shallow attention he drew, and opted instead to stay away from the whole social media circus.

Still, the headlining act in The American Meme is Paris Hilton, who’s often credited for beginning the whole famous-for-being-famous movement. It’s clear that Paris views herself as the wizened elder, the sage persona who’s been at this long enough to dispel drops of wisdom like some perfectly manicured Yoda. Yet her vapidity breaks through at every turn. Others in the film marvel at the fact that she now commands a gazillion-dollar empire that traffics in clothes, perfume and more, as if she built this with only a few bucks in her pocket rather than as an entitled heiress. And when fans (“Little Hiltons,” as they’re known) create memes comparing her to Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ, it’s with the expected mix of narcissism and idiocy that she gurgles, “That’s a compliment!”

The American Meme is fascinating in the manner in which it lays bare the obvious draws of this surface celebrity culture for those with little self-awareness, and it isn’t the fault of its director if the segments seeking to examine the dark side of the equation feel disingenuous rather than genuine. When, say, Paris or Kirill moan and groan about the perils of fame and the difficulties in remaining relevant to a world that might eventually grow tired of their shenanigans, it’s impossible to know if it’s real tears or crocodile tears that are being shed. After all, when someone spends the vast majority of their lives performing for the benefit of others, it’s doubtless as hard to flick the switch off on oneself as it is to do likewise with the camera.

(The American Meme will premiere on Netflix this Friday, December 7.)

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