We all know people who think they’re tuned in but still have a way of raising high-minded objections to the popular culture they didn’t happen to grow up with. They’re the ones who said, back in the ’90s, that Howard Stern isn’t funny or Hip-hop isn’t music or How could anyone watch reality TV? It’s all fake! So if you gawk with bewilderment, and a touch of horrified awe, at the brave new world of social-media exhibitionists who preen and flounce through the brutally arresting documentary “The American Meme,” you may leave yourself open to the same accusation: that you have somehow failed to grasp the appeal of these people because, to put it simply, you’re too old.
Actually, though, there’s a key difference. “The American Meme” is a movie I very much recommend, since it’s both highly entertaining and an essential snapshot of the narcotic voyeuristic parasitic American fishbowl. Yet if you watch the movie and take in the spirit of someone like Kirill Bichutsky, the party maestro whose brand activity is lining up women in nightclubs so that he can spray their sexually suggestive open mouths with champagne, or the Fat Jewish (née Josh Ostrovsky), a clown prince of the apocalypse who looks like Zippy the Pinhead on the wrong side of a Doritos bender, or Paris Hilton, the snark princess of wealth narcissism who started it all, and you ask, “What’s the deal with these people? They don’t seem like they have much talent,” you have not failed to grasp the essence of their appeal. You have just defined the essence of their appeal.
Yes, the Fat Jewish posts spiky observations and jokes that make him sound like the runt understudy of Artie Lange, and Paris Hilton deftly packages her Brat of Versailles image to turn herself into a postmodern camera object. There are social-media stars who have crossed over from other mediums, like the stand-up comic Dane Cook and the producer-mogul DJ Khaled, and there also ones like the model-turned-crazy-cut-up Emily Ratajowski, who make you realize that the very first of these stars — before Paris, even — may have been Jenny McCarthy. As for Kirill, let’s just say that the man has studied his bling videos and truly does know how to deliver a champagne facial.
But to say that these folks have a flair, or even a low-down dirty genius, for the metaphysics of self-promotion is at once obvious and beside the point. They’ve all emerged from the same swamp: a fusion of TMZ and the red carpet and “Jackass” and reality-TV soap opera and the never-ending exposure that’s the juice, and pulse, of social media. As fickle as their fame may be, they have, at certain points, been some of the biggest celebrities on the planet. I was going to write, “They have more followers than Brad Pitt has fans,” but that thought, in this context, sounds insanely antiquated, rooted in the quaint idea that big-screen stardom (to the extent that Brad Pitt still incarnates it) could possibly be the gold standard of idol worship in the 21st century. Maybe it is, and maybe not, yet what movie stardom isn’t, by any reasonable standard, is attainable.
The Internet superstars in “The American Meme” possess a celebrity that, in theory and practice, is all too attainable. And that, beneath their hey-dog-here’s-some-weird-shit-I-did-today-on-Instagram selfies, their proudly disreputable personas, is the driving essence of their appeal. Unlike Howard Stern or the artists of hip-hop, they have no resonant or lasting talent (they really don’t), but what their lack of talent means is: They could be you. And you could be them. They’re the new trash royalty of Warhol Nation.
Welcome to the decadent diversion that has become our version of fiddling while Rome burns. Is it taking America over a cliff? Not entirely. But it’s helping! It’s a piece in the puzzle of what’s gone on to create a nation of navel-gazing niches, an America at odds with itself — a place where vice has steamrolled virtue, advertising has trumped entertainment, and anyone packaging anything (I’ve got a border wall I’d like to sell you!) can get away with it, as long as the sales pitch is delivered with enough brazenly hypnotic self-exposure. The new Internet celebrities are fake stars who become your “friends,” and symbolize what you could be, too. After all, how else are you going to lift yourself out of the mud pit of the 99 percent?
Bert Marcus, the director of “The American Meme,” works in a kaleidoscopic style that channels the glitzy, fragmented screen-shot spirit of his subjects. At the same time, he gets us close to them, so that we can see the kind of people they are: shrewdly likable and kind of ordinary. Their lives consist of feeding a beast that pumps their fame and drains their souls.
Kirill, who goes by the handle SlutWhisperer, looks to be in his mid-thirties, and he basically took over the mojo of “Girls Gone Wild.” But the Kirill we see off camera is a perpetually hungover lost boy who confesses that he can’t go to sleep unless he’s drunk and beyond tired, because otherwise he’ll have to confront his actual thoughts about things. He’s living the life, but he’s not a happy camper. It’s as if he can sense, on some level, the void he’s heading for once it all comes crashing down. Josh Ostrovsky seems far more centered. By branding himself “the Fat Jewish” and styling himself to look like a psychotic Hasidic freak, he exploits and triumphs over the anti-Semitic undercurrents of our era. What he possesses, to a rare degree, is the charisma of the shameless. He’s a happy hustler, a lightweight flimflam jester who got lucky and knows it.
The most intriguing figure in the movie is Brittany Furlan, a 31-year-old small-town Pennsylvania girl who came to Los Angeles to be an actress, which she didn’t have much success at, and wound up becoming the superstar of Vine, the now-defunct short-form video hosting service in which she created satirical alter egos, like the militant progressive Natalie Nature, who are like “Saturday Night Live” characters on gonzo steroids. Furlan has actual talent, but you can see why she found a home for it on the Internet rather than a more conventional entertainment medium. She’s a twitchy personality, uncomfortable in her own skin. When she gets engaged to Tommy Lee, the Mötley Crüe drummer whose stolen sex tape (made with his then-wife, Pamela Anderson) was one of the foundation stones of our new age of infamy, it’s a match made in marketing heaven. But instead of wedding cake, we watch the aging Tommy pick and eat one of her boogers.
The real foundation figure here is Paris Hilton, and you probably never thought you’d see a movie in which she emerges as the soft warm voice of soul and reason. But in “The American Meme,” Hilton makes an appealing, level-headed spokeswoman for the mystic glories of empty fame. The film recounts her rise, pegged to the 2000 Vanity Fair article “Hip-Hop Debs,” which showcased her and her sister Nicky as teenage riot-grrrl aristocrats and was instrumental in launching the entire era. Paris was the original Kardashian — the first to get famous for being famous. And in “The American Meme,” she shows us how she poured that fame into an empire.
Everyone took her cue. The Internet superstars in “The American Meme” come on as renegades who have democratized fame, but a great many companies want to hitch themselves to their cachet, and so they’re flush with corporate deals, like the Fat Jewish’s arrangement to pimp for White Girl Rosé, a novelty wine that became a hipster hit. It’s a tidy arrangement: the scuzz version of celebrity lending street cred to a product, and the product then selling the sellers. And where do the fans stand in all this? They’re the daily connective link in what has become a proudly debased new art form of diversion and illusion, one that does everything but nurture.