Director: Bert Marcus
Cast: Paris Hilton, Kirill Bichutsky, Brittany Furlan, Josh Ostrovsky, DJ Khaled, Dane Cook, Emily Ratajowski, Matthew Felker, Tommy Lee
Watch The American Meme online in the UK: Netflix UK
Directed by Bert Marcus, this entertaining documentary offers both access and insight into the lives of four social media superstars: Paris Hilton (who also executive produced), snarky stunt guy Josh Ostrovsky (aka. The Fat Jew), photographer Kirill Bichutsky and comedian Brittany Furlan. The results range from fascinating to appalling to surprisingly moving, with the film serving as an intriguing snapshot of our collective obsession with celebrity and social media.
Marcus employs an effective, kaleidoscope-like approach to the film’s structure, switching back-and-forth between his four main subjects in a manner that, appropriately, recalls clicking through TV channels or browsing multiple tabs. He also allows them to tell their stories in their own words, occasionally inserting news footage or website headlines to provide extra information, such as Ostrovsky being repeatedly accused of plagiarism on his Instagram account.
In each case, Marcus traces the trajectories of his subjects, laying out how they became famous in the first place, identifying their highs and their lows and then giving them space to reflect. In the process, Marcus finds genuine sympathy for his subjects – it’s oddly affecting to hear Paris Hilton, of all people, reflect that all her friends her own age are now married with children. Indeed, the film humanises her in a way that none of her countless interviews, personal appearances or Instagram posts have managed to do, particularly when she reflects on her devastation at the release of her sex tape or her reaction when she realised the producers of House of Wax marketed the movie with the slogan “See Paris Die”.
The film is at its most successful when it allows you to see the other side of those hashtag-blessed Instagram posts. Bichutsky, in particular, has a horrifically obnoxious online persona and his main job seems to involve spraying champagne onto women’s faces and body parts in nightclubs, so it’s rather gratifying to discover that actually, yes, he hates himself and is pretty much on the verge of burn-out.
That self-awareness is something that all the subjects have in common. Each of them (with the possible exception of Paris, who, as the film ends, appears to have found a way to stay young on the Internet forever) can see an eventual crash approaching and are taking steps to ensure they still have a life when it ends. Furlan is particularly interesting in this regard, as her initial platform of fame, Vine, closed down in 2017 (although she had apparently already left the service in 2015) and she speaks candidly about failing to find work as an actress or comedian, despite having achieved her level of celebrity. In addition, the film identifies an almost crippling degree of loneliness, fully aware of the fact that millions of followers do not, in fact, equal millions of friends and hinting at the idea that trusting people is difficult, because potential partners may just be after their own slice of fame-by-proxy.
Throughout the film, Marcus offers fascinating insights, whether it’s laying out exactly how much companies are prepared to pay celebrities for Instagram endorsement posts, reflecting on just how much work goes into a creative social media update or revealing that even at the height of web celebrity, you can still experience jealousy when someone else has more likes or followers than you.
If there’s a problem with the film, it’s only that you can’t help wishing it had dug a little deeper and pushed a little harder, as it occasionally shies away just as things are getting interesting. That minor quibble aside, this is an engaging documentary that deserves your “likes”.
The American Meme is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.