Wednesday, July 10, 2013

“The Bling Ring” and a Defence of My Generation.

“The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World”
Author: Nancy-Jo Sales.
Pages: 288.

Publisher: It Books.
Summary (taken from Goodreads): Meet the Bling Ring: six club-hopping LA teenagers accused of stealing more than $3 million in clothing and jewelry from the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson and other young members of the Hollywood elite-allegedly the most audacious burglary gang in recent history.
Driven by celebrity worship, vanity, and the desire to look and dress like the rich and famous, the Bling Ring made headlines in 2009 for using readily available sources-like Google maps, Facebook and TMZ, to track the comings and goings of their targets. Seven teens were arrested for the crimes, and instantly became tabloid fodder. The world asked-how did the American obsession with celebrity get so out of hand? And why did a band of ostensibly privileged LA teens take such a risk?
Vanity Fair reporter Nancy Jo Sales found the answer: they did it because they could. And because it was just that easy. 
Author of the acclaimed Vanity Fair story on the Bling Ring "The Suspect Wore Louboutins," Sales gained unprecedented access to the Hollywood thieves, and in the process uncovered a dark world of teenage arrogance, greed, obsession, and delusion. Now, for the first time in a full book length work, Sales details the Bling Ring crimes up close and in depth, and reveals the key players' stories in a shocking look at the seedy world of the real young Hollywood.

I hate the trashy tabloid culture that has seemingly become unavoidable in the age of Twitter, TMZ and the cataclysmic hell-hole known as E! News. It’s hard to argue that our society isn’t at least a little celebrity obsessed when CNN and BBC News cut away from the situation in Syria to cover Whitney Houston’s death. Better writers than I have tackled the topic of celebrity, privilege and entitlement, as have some of our top film-makers. Sofia Coppola, no stranger to the weirdness of Hollywood, has taken on another strange but true tale of teenage isolation and the alienating nature of celebrity, this time based on Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair piece on a group of spoiled celebrity obsessed teenagers who burglarised the homes of numerous Hollywood stars. I can’t comment on the film itself since it hasn’t been released in the UK yet, but fortunately for us, Sales has expanded her piece into a full length book, packed full of pseudo-intellectualism, cheap generalisation, painfully bad attempts at pop-culture references and yet another concern trolling attack on the supposed inherent selfishness of my generation.

I get that this is a non-fiction book aimed at a more general audience and not a YA novel but reading this book reminded me of many a YA author’s attempts at capturing the zeitgeist of the 21st century teenage generation and failing miserably. To give those authors credit, at least they didn’t use shallow research with the thinnest of connections to the subject in hand in order to prove their point.

From a simple writer’s point of view, “The Bling Ring” is far more of a slog to read than a book of this length should be. It doesn’t help that Sales did not procure an interview with the supposed ring-leader of the group, Rachel Lee. Without her words or even that of her lawyer, the story feels inevitably incomplete. Sales has to reach to make the most unnecessary of connections in order to create supposed context to deconstruct the burglar ring. While I see the obvious links between a gang of celebrity obsessed teenagers in Hollywood stealing from those they idolised and the damaging potential of the reality TV culture, Sales’s continued inclusion of sociological and psychological studies, peppered with a few anecdotes, fall flat for the most part. Glimmers of insight shine through but only for the briefest moments. It’s hard not to read this book and sense all the padding. Where the Vanity Fair article was sharp and concise, this feels baggy and tiresome. The most entertaining parts centre on Alexis Neiers and her family, who were starring in an E! reality show during the arrest and trial, but Sales brings nothing new to these moments that weren’t in her article. Honestly, you’ll find a far more visceral and unique deconstruction of these teens and the celebrity culture in that TV show, the abhorrent train-wreck “Pretty Wild” than you will here. If you can’t suffer the show itself, and I don’t blame you, check out the clips from “The Soup”.

When “The Social Network”, the movie based on the creation of Facebook, came out, many critics claimed it was the defining film of my generation, something I took offence to. After all, why should my generation be defined by Ivy League privilege and cut-throat selfishness? My best friend decided to fight back and wrote a piece on why the film that really defined our generation was “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World” (I can’t find this article anymore sadly, but I’ll keep digging. Edgar Wright retweeted it and everything!). I like that film a lot, as I do with “The Social Network”, but once again, it’s about a selfish white guy (the comics expand the issues way better). With Sales’s “The Bling Ring”, we have another dose of vapid narcissism and privilege that is seen as the poison that has permeated our generation. How does Sales justify her opinions on this supposed state of the teenage and young adult nation? She quotes hip-hop and talks about the Kardashians, and yes, those moments are just as cringe-worthy as you think they are. The burglars watched “The Hills” and desired expensive clothes, therefore our generation has gone to pot. Little girls dress as princesses and this is a sign they’re going to turn into Paris Hilton. A highly publicised group of young people commit some crimes and all of a sudden the Bonnie and Clyde comparisons come out!

All of this pearl clutching over the sorry state of those darn kids reeks of pushing the blame around. Why don’t we talk about the ingrained privilege of our business and economic culture that expects university graduates drowning in rising debts to intern for free to gain “experience” instead of earning a decent day’s wage, a culture that breeds nepotism since only the lucky few at the top can afford to sustain this lifestyle? Why doesn’t Sales discuss the bleeding of social security in America during an economic crisis, or how baby boomers have destroyed the political system to the point where overcoming apathy becomes more and more difficult every day? How about, amidst all the tutting over celebrity culture, something that’s been around for longer than most of us have been alive, we mention the unavoidable misogyny that dictates famous women must all look a certain way (usually white, skinny, busty and willing to dress expensively) while balancing the impossible tightrope of being sexualised and virginal? Let’s not forget that said double standards have led to the continued shaming of women in the public eye for daring to make their own decisions, and even blaming them for the awful things that have happened to them (Rihanna, anyone?) And all those reality TV shows that push the wealth fetish we’re supposedly all in love with? Who commissioned those shows and who’s making money off them? I doubt the CEO of E! is 16 years old.

Our generation’s going to be left with an overheated planet with a worldwide economic black-hole sitting on top of an American government where less than 20% of congress is female, student debt sits at an all-time high and CNN has a genuine debate over whether the word “cracker”is worse than the N word (breaking news: if you can’t even say the word then that’s the worse one). So the next time you see someone generalising this generation as selfish, the me-me-me crowd lacking in empathy and dripping in narcissism, the way Nancy Jo Sales does, take some time to think about the mess we’ve been left by the shimmering Samaritans known as the baby boomers, because frankly, we’ve earned the right to complain.

Back to “The Bling Ring”.

It’s fine if you want a Heat Magazine style expose of a very specific sliver of celebrity culture gone bad, although you’d be better just reading the Vanity Fair article. It’s not a badly researched book, it’s just grasping at all the wrong straws in an attempt to create something more worthy than it actually is. It’s most decidedly not about our generation. Hope you die before you get old? Not quite, but I hope we get a big enough shovel to clean up the mess. Then we’ll tweet it for all to see.


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