Paris Hilton has been in the “due for a re-evaluation” stage of her career for far longer than she was evaluated in the first place.
In 2008, a documentary about Hilton, entitled “Paris, Not France,” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; in it, Hilton, one of several women whose time in the limelight in the 2000s descended into an acrimonious war waged by and on the media, attempted to explain why she’d been treated unfairly. In 2020, Hilton — much more firmly established as a professional DJ and seemingly generally well-liked public personality — does the same thing in “This Is Paris,” a YouTube Originals-produced doc directed by Alexandra Dean.
Dean, director of the Hedy Lamarr documentary “Bombshell,” knows her way around an icon who’s somewhat receded from view. (In Hilton’s prime, which is to say in the time she was most vocally hated, Hilton was inescapable; to see her now, one must seek her out, which has tended to engender kinder coverage.) Cannily, she inserts interview footage with Kim Kardashian West — the onetime Hilton protege whose greater hunger for fame led her to leapfrog, and to act now as a bit of a shock absorber for Hilton. Anyone who wants to point to a symbol of celebrity vacuity can point to Kardashian West and her family (or, perhaps, to the White House); Hilton, her haters siphoned away, generally plays to an audience inclined to appreciate her.
The Hilton gestalt, the thing fans appreciate, necessarily is rooted in unknowability; by now it’s a well-known fact of celebrity culture that Hilton’s bubbly public speaking voice is an affectation, but hearing her octaves-deeper rumble is still, somehow, a surprise. In her previous public incarnation, as the purposefully vacant star of the 2003-2007 reality series “The Simple Life” and as a cross-media presence standing for little more symbolic than herself, Hilton was less an innovator than a reiteration of things that had worked for other pop artists. She was, in her flatness, her refusal to advance her own storyline or even to have a storyline at all, a Warhol painting brought to something like life. (Contrast this with Kardashian West, whose family life, however real it may be, is the wellspring from which her celebrity is drawn.)
Here, Hilton is forced to get a little more personal, to be drawn out in a way she somewhat resists. She’s comfortable enough telling stories of her past that she hasn’t before, including her mistreatment in a draconian reform school, from which she brings together other alums for a heart-to-heart debrief. Hilton seems obviously less at ease when the substance of her life is unfolding not in retrospect but in the present, as when her boyfriend purposefully agitates her before she takes the stage at a music festival, culminating in strange, raw footage of her having him ejected.
This footage is frank in a way Hilton has never been in the many years after her emergence in a sex tape whose authenticity was the subject of a crass early-2000s debate. But what purpose does it serve? If the point is that Hilton, so often viewed as simply having been buoyed along by cultural trends, is in fact only happy when she’s in complete control — well, the point is made elsewhere far more effectively, including simply by the fact that a new documentary about Paris Hilton is being released in 2020. (No mere passing fad could boast that.) At times, “This Is Paris” seems to revel in Hilton’s misery, as if to say that the reason Hilton deserves reconsideration is that she has earned it through the extremity of her public and private suffering, when in fact she deserves to be treated with kindness because she is a person.
It’s no secret that Hilton, along with contemporaries like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, was treated brutally. But this documentary seems so intent on excavating her trauma, up to and including animated re-enactments of her time in purgatorial prep school, that it loses sight of her. The film effectively makes the case that Hilton’s shell of a public persona, her ability to go on a reality show or talk show or magazine cover and get our attention by saying nothing, was a defense mechanism. Once the work of excavating trauma is done, though, it doesn’t get her to say much more than that. She recedes once more.