The American Meme dares to ask the question – what if you woke up one day with no followers, and what is the price of fame worth to you? The documentary takes a closer look at the lives of some of the biggest social media stars of our time, including Paris Hilton (credited with “starting it all”), Brittany Furlan, Kirill Bichutsky, DJ Khaled, Josh Ostrovsky (The Fat Jewish), Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin (now Bieber), and more. This insightful film is full of surprises, with glimpses ranging from endearing to disturbing into what it means to be famous in a world where privacy no longer exists.
Editor’s note: check out Jenna’s recent interview with Brittany Furlan here.
Every single person reading this post most likely has at least one social media account to his or her name (if not several). Not only is it deemed “necessary” in today’s culture, it’s also the great equalizer of the internet. Common folk can sit comfortably amongst the famous and @ them as many times as they wish – and, thrill of thrills, sometimes even receive a response or a like in return. The platform also often works in favor of those at the top of the heap, giving them access to the front of the line in the form of perks and work. But, as with most things, there is a dark side and the decline can be steep. Such is the tradeoff talented director Bert Marcus explores in his new project (which made its debut at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix), with his lens turned to some of the most dynamic names in the biz. And friends, it is fascinating. (The lean runtime of an hour and a half already has me wishing for a sequel.)
First up is Paris Hilton, and in case you’re just joining us in the world, she’s the Hilton Hotel heiress who created one of the original molds of “being famous for being famous.” (If you’d like to “thank” someone for the Kardashians, look no further than Ms. Hilton. Kim was her assistant before biting her style and running off with an empire of her own.) The Paris featured in this movie is one who appears tender, timid, and raw, acknowledging the toll her highly visible journey has taken on her, while simultaneously claiming that some of the people she feels closest to in the world are her fans. (She reveals that her followers, known as #LittleHiltons, call her “mom” and often compare her to Jesus, which she says makes her feel “really special.”) Her own mother, Kathy, a highly visible socialite in her own right back in the “word of mouth” days, sums it up best when she points to a personal photo of Andy Warhol and says, “He would’ve loved everything about you.” This is one hundred percent believable, given that Warhol was the oracle of future fame.
Paris Hilton and all the feels.
Of course, any meditation on this phenomenon wouldn’t be complete without including Josh Ostrovsky, better known as The Fat Jewish/Fat Jew, who rose to prominence on the wings of Instagram. At his zenith he nabbed an invitation to the White House Correspondents Dinner from Arianna Huffington, was repped by CAA, and briefly had a Comedy Central deal in the works. The tide turned against him when it was revealed that the majority of his posts were not original thoughts or work; rather he’d been nabbing content from around the web and posting it to his accounts as if it was his own. He calls it “curating.” Most others called it plagiarism and outright stealing. The controversy is glossed over in the film, with Josh shrugging it off by saying it was a clash between internet newbies and “old people” over what constitutes intellectual property, with old people simply not understanding what it means to be an aggregator. (Many disagree with his take, including numerous high-profile comedians.) Yet Josh remains unabashed, and unfazed. In the film he appears both jovial and self-aware – he reasons that someone was going to make the money, so why not him? If he feels bad, he doesn’t show it here. Instead he continues to live his “best life,” banking on his future with a surprise investment as a vintner. (If you’ve sipped White Girl Rosé, you’ve had a certified Fat Jewish product in your hands – he’s a founder, along with a trio of other influencers, of the powerful Swish Beverages.) If anything, Josh exemplifies what it means to be an American in business – he freely embraces capitalism and is unencumbered by guilt. In short, he’s the perfect specimen for this kind of fame.
The Fat Jew, enjoying the ride.
One of the more engaging and real-feeling subjects of this documentary is Brittany Furlan (*look for my MovieBoozer interview with Brittany here), who rose to fame on the Vine wave and continues to work as an actress and comedian. Timing is everything, and it was no different for Furlan when she hopped on (the now defunct) Vine. An early adapter to the platform, she found the perfect outlet for her blend of comedy, sketch, and character work in the 6-second video format and soon became the most-followed female in that realm. During this time, she was declared to be one of the most influential people on the internet by Time Magazine in 2015, appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and even nabbed Joan Rivers for one of her videos. As much as she was adored (her streams had over 4 billion views, at one point), she was also vilified for putting herself out there and left the service about a year before it shut down. She’s open to sharing her heartbreaking childhood in the film and reveals that it was a driving force in her decision to head to L.A. Brittany shines in a different way here – she came from nothing and her focus was (and continues to be) using social media as a creative outlet vs the “just let me be famous” vibe of some of the others featured in the movie. (She still releases charming videos on her Instagram near daily.) In choosing to focus on her craft, she still has somewhere to go with her talent and drive.
Brittany Furlan, in character for her Beyoncé sketch.
In contrast is Kirill Bichutsky (Kirill Was Here, known as the slutwhisperer on Instagram). Not to say that Kirill isn’t talented – he’s one of the most sought-after nightlife photographers in the game. But the bulk of his time is spent in front of the lens instead of behind it, given that the majority of his money is made from “creating nightclub experiences” by giving women “champagne facials.” Our introduction to Kirill is him dressed in a unicorn onesie, where he strolls into a liquor store, purchases a bottle of Patrón Silver Tequila, and downs the entire thing on the sidewalk. (If your liver isn’t crying watching this footage, you might have a problem.) Daytime Kirill is intelligent and insightful. He does chores at his parents’ home and frets about letting them down. (Kirill immigrated to the US from Russia with his family at the age of 6. They came to the States in hopes of a better life for their children. While Kirill has built a booming business, he’s also the first person in his family not to graduate from college.) Nighttime Kirill is a different story – he’s like if comedians Anthony Jeselnik and Doug Stanhope had a baby, and that baby remained permanently drunk in Spring Break mode. He’s the sensitive nihilist – his despair is as palpable as his disdain. Much like The Fat Jewish, he stumbled upon his internet niche by accident and has been figuring out how to chase the high (and the dollars) ever since. Of this crazy cast of characters, his path seems the least clear – will he refocus on his genius photography skills, or continue partying into the void? His story is definitely a cliffhanger.
Kirill Was Here, leaving his mark.
There’s so much to explore, with interviews from Matthew Felker (the hottie from Britney Spears’ Toxic video), and Dane Cook (who says of The Fat Jewish, “Take it ‘til you make it”), as well as insights from Hailey Bieber (née Baldwin), Emily Ratajkowski (who fares much better from her Blurred Lines fame than Felker did from his MTV exposure), the boisterous DJ Khaled, and more. The documentary is much like the screens we’ve become addicted to – it will leave you dazed… and craving more.
Dumplin’– the Jennifer Aniston/Dolly Parton vehicle – nabbed the bulk of Netflix’s promotional push this December, but do not sleep on streaming The American Meme. Director Bert Marcus does an excellent job of letting the camera roll and allowing his subjects to take shape – the perfect complement to the medium where they all sought their rise. He deftly draws out never-before-seen nuances while crafting a compelling narrative.
The American Meme (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Kirill does.
Take a Drink: every time you feel a tiny bit sad for Paris, and then remember her millions. (Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it makes the ride a hell of a lot more fun!)
Do a Shot: if you can’t wait to play in Paris’s upcoming VR world.
Take a Drink: for DJ Khaled’s son, Asahd, because come on! Are you a monster, or are you going to celebrate cute?
Take a Drink: every time you watch one of the stars’ social media stats climb.
Take a Drink: every time you debate the moral tale of Josh Ostrovsky’s rise.
Do a Champagne Toast: for Brittany Furlan’s upcoming nuptials – the actress/comedian is set to wed rocker Tommy Lee on Valentine’s Day, 2019!