The Bling Ring and the American Dream

A few months before its release date, I became thoroughly obsessed with The Bling Ring. You already know about this movie, right? It’s Sofia Coppola’s latest film, based on an actual story about a group of teens living in Calabasas, Calif. who decided to rob the houses of nearby celebrities. It turned out this was incredibly easy, since for some reason famous people NEVER lock their doors or turn on an alarm.

I remember hearing about the story when it happened a few years ago, but at the time I didn’t really look into it any further than any of the other celebrity gossip I read about on a daily basis. It wasn’t until I saw this video a few months ago that I realized I needed to know literally everything about the bling ring or the burglar bunch or whatever you want to call this “gang.”

That, my friends, is Alexis Neiers. When I saw this perfect, perfect video, I needed more. So I watched her short-lived 2010 reality television show, Pretty Wild in its entirety (it’s only nine episodes, so this took me a total of one evening). The show is Pretty Terrible. It’s about wannabe model Alexis, her younger sister Gabby, and Alexis’s friend/fake adopted sister/also aspiring model Tess Taylor. They’re all living with mother/former model/generally insane person Andrea Arlington-Dunne, who is ACTUALLY Amy Poehler’s character from Mean Girls (she’s not like a regular mom, she’s a cool mom) and she home schools the girls using the teachings of The Secret. Seriously.

Just a totally normal family.

Just a totally normal family (Alexis, Gabby, Tess and Andrea).

The absolute only reason why Pretty Wild is interesting is because, in the very first episode, Alexis is arrested for her involvement with the bling ring. She was preeeetty much caught on a security camera robbing Orlando Bloom’s house along with a few of the main bling ring kids. Alexis says she was black out drunk and didn’t know what was happening; the guy who told on her, Nick Prugo, says she knew exactly what was up.

After I finished watching Pretty Wild, I of course had to read the article that spurred the insane series of phone messages in the above clip. Written by Nancy Jo Sales, it’s called The Suspects Wore Louboutins, and while I already knew that Alexis speaks like an entitled valley girl, some of her quotes in the article are FASCINATING in their lack of self-awareness. My personal favourite is this gem:

“I’m a firm believer in Karma,” she said, “and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I see myself being like an Angelina Jolie,” she said, “but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet.” She was sounding almost like a real celebrity. “God didn’t give me these talents and looks to just sit around being a model or being famous. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country, for all I know.”


I STILL felt like I needed to know more, and the movie wasn’t coming out for another month. Fortunately, Sales recently expanded on her original article and turned it into a book, which I devoured in a couple of days. Most of it is based on interviews with Nick and Alexis, and those conversations are used to expand on the backgrounds of all the kids involved, including supposed ring leader Rachel Lee.

When Nick and Rachel first met, they bonded over a shared love of fashion and celebrities. They started out committing petty crimes – stealing things from unlocked cars, shoplifting, doing drugs. Stupid things that stupid teenagers do because – have you met teenagers? They’re pretty stupid. Then things escalated. Nick and Rachel used gossip sites to find out when celebs like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Audrina Patridge were out of town. They looked up their addresses, showed up at their homes and, for the most part, walked right in through unlocked doors. They brought their friends with them, including Diana Tamayo and Courtney Ames. In addition to stealing millions of dollars worth of clothes, shoes, purses, jewelry, drugs and straight up cash, they spent time hanging out in these houses, rifling through the possessions of these famous people, experiencing all the beautiful things they owned.

Rachel Lee and Nick Prugo, looking like super regular teens.

Rachel Lee and Nick Prugo, looking like super regular teens.

Obviously these crimes were completely wrong and inexcusable and, again, really, really stupid. But I think part of the reason the story is so captivating to me is because of how stupid the celebrities were, too. The bling ring members went back to Paris Hilton’s place close to 10 times – Paris had a key under her door mat, and at one point the kids took it with them; Paris had replaced it the next time they returned. She had no idea she had been robbed. Again, I realize that you cannot steal things from people, even when they have many, many things. But at the same time, there’s something absolutely fascinating about a theft where the victim has SO MUCH STUFF she doesn’t notice she’s been robbed multiple times.

This crime spree was about more than stealing things. If these kids just wanted to steal nice things, they could have committed much less high profile crimes. They were surrounded by rich people, but they didn’t target people who were rich; they targeted people who were rich and famous. And I can understand that, to some degree. For the most part, these kids were pretty well off, from reasonably affluent families, with parents who probably weren’t involved enough. Some of them had behavioural problems, or struggled at school. But there was this completely different lifestyle, a glamorous, beautiful world, and it wasn’t just in magazines or on TV, like it is for most of us. It was literally right around the corner.

There are probably still people who believe in the American Dream, or in some concept of it; the idea that you can be a good person who works hard your whole life, and you’ll be successful, you’ll be able to provide for yourself and your family. But mostly, that seems naive. Now, we’re cynical. Now we know that the economy can crash, maybe without warning, and maybe you’ll lose the things you worked for your whole life, even if you did the right things, even if you made the best choices you could.

And anyway, who wants to work hard their whole lives when there’s an easier option? Get on a reality show! Release a sex tape! Get plastic surgery! Have a baby! Marry someone famous! Get a divorce! Rinse and repeat! I’m not saying it’s actually easy to turn your entire life into some sort of brand; honestly it sounds horrendously unappealing to an introvert like me, but doesn’t it LOOK easy? If you look at someone like Paris Hilton or Audrina Patridge, it’s like, what are they actually famous for? Being rich? Being in the right place at the right time? If the kids in the bling ring had all the same stuff, if they hung out in all the same places, if they met all the same people, what was the difference between them and the celebrities they were obsessed with?

Oh, and I’m not saying the kids thought about all these things while they were committing the crimes. I’m just saying there’s a culture that created a kind of perfect storm. There’s a sense of blase entitlement that brought them together, that made them think it was OK to do the things that they did.

Emma Watson's California accent is EVERYTHING.

Emma Watson’s California accent is EVERYTHING.

The movie The Bling Ring finally came out on Friday, and I went to see it on opening night. I loved it just about as much as I thought I would. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the story as described in Sales’ article. Diana isn’t portrayed in it, and the characters based on Alexis and Tess play a bigger role than they likely did in real life. This is a good thing, because Emma Watson plays the Alexis character, and she was completely perfect. What I really liked about it was that Coppola uses a really detached style, not really casting judgment on the kids, but portrayed them using their own language and their own actions. I thought the film did a really good job of showing how nothing’s real for them until it’s been documented, until it’s been photographed and posted to Facebook, and how those photographs are taken repeatedly, from different angles even when nothing is really happening, and curated to create an idea of a life and a person who might not even really exist.

People who see the film without knowing the story might find it too far fetched, too ridiculous to be believed. It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as vapid and pointless, but I think the point of the film IS that it’s vapid and pointless. That’s our culture, these are the people kids look up to, the internal lives they lead, the way they interact online, the way they’re tantalized by an unattainable lifestyle that seems so incredibly attainable.

It's actually kind of weird that EVERYONE doesn't have self-portrait pillows.

It’s actually kind of weird that EVERYONE doesn’t have self-portrait pillows.

There were also a lot of weird elements going on behind the scenes of the film. For example, one of the detectives in the bling ring case, Brett Goodkin, was involved as a technical advisor and even had a brief cameo. The problem is that he didn’t have permission from his superiors, and the court cases against most of the bling ring members were still ongoing at the time. Another weird thing is that Paris Hilton, who’s said she thinks “it’s absolutely disgusting what they did,” allowed filming for the movie to take place inside her actual house! Yep, those are her actual pillows with her face on them.

I guess my thesis is that I think the entire story of the bling ring, along with the subsequent article, book and film say a lot about this current moment and our celebrity and youth culture. These are concepts that might seem silly and unimportant, but I think they are things that are worth paying attention to. And if you look at other films released this year, trends start to appear. Actually you should just read A.O. Scott’s article on the topic, because he says it much better than I can.

And don’t forget Alexis Neiers’ chilling words – she really might lead a country some day, for all we know.

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