Film Reviews

Review: ‘The American Meme’

Hot Docs 2018


The American Meme
(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Bert Marcus
Programme: Nitghtvision (International Premiere)

OMG! Paris Hilton is actually smart. The celebrity socialite, reality TV star, and entrepreneur is the biggest surprise of Bert Marcus’s plugged-in documentary The American Meme. Hilton serves as the chief talking head in this survey of social media “influencers” that considers Andy Warhol’s adage that everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame. In an era when careers are made and broken with six- second video loops and 280 character tweets, ephemeral celebrity is in overdrive.

Marcus maps out the ever-growing world of social media influencers who can command over six figures for a single post associating a product with their brand. These self-made moguls have enormous reach with audiences in the millions who translate into consumers. Hilton receives fair credit as the first true celebrity influencer and the film shows her innovative effort to forge a distinct brand from her parents’ hotel chain by self-promoting her socialite lifestyle and engaging with her fanbase.

The American Meme features other stars of Instagram and the Twitterverse, like The Fat Jew (né Josh Ostrovsky) who made a fortune simply by posting stupid photos with obnoxious captions. Ostrovsky boorishly recounts his unconventional career path and shows how silly videos and trademark hairstyles grant authority to any idiot with an iPhone. The doc shows him rubbing shoulders with as Ariana Huffington’s date at the White House correspondents dinner in between video shoots of himself eating junk food and getting white girl wasted with Madonna.

The perverted underbelly of social media’s reach comes through interviews with photographer Kirill Bichutsky, aka the “Slut Whisperer,” who makes a fortune snapping photos at nightclubs that will surely rob young women of bright careers to come. (Paging Netizens!) Kirill embodies male entitlement as he shares his experience going to clubs night after night and snapping pictures as girls whip their tops off and douse themselves in champagne. Some call it empowering, but the images range from embarrassing to degrading. As Bichutsky highlights his signature “champagne facial” in which girls smear their faces with Moët and whipped cream to resemble porn stars covered with semen, one can’t help but watch in sad disbelief for the human race.

The American Meme can be a lot of fun, especially when it follows the influencers as they panic over “likes!” and worry about their reach. These influencers are shaping the currents of capitalism as advertising dollars shift towards non-traditional sources. Marcus illustrates how this business strategy is very risky for everyone involved as dollars favour the brands of a powerful few.

The film also captures the grind of social media. While being an influencer can be one of the best things to happen to someone who embraces popular culture, it can also be the worst. Hilton, The Fat Jew, and Kirill all convey the sheer exhaustion one feels while delivering a personalized 24/7 news cycle. Every aspect of one’s life is a public commodity in the social media age. However, the endless grind of social media demands constant reinvention, and Hilton’s storyline is especially strong as she demonstrates how she used her reach and business savvy to launch product lines for legions of ready-made consumers.

The American Meme tries to make sense of a generation that defines success through quasi-stardom, shameless self-promotion, and instant gratification. When eating capsules of laundry soap are a form of public amusement or when setting oneself on fire for all to see is a game, the impressions of the Internet are a sorry record for the human race. When Paris Hilton is the lone voice of reason in a documentary, one can’t help but worry for the next generation. North Korea can’t fire the nukes soon enough.

The American Meme screens:
-Sat, May 5 at 6:30 PM at Hart House
-Sun, May 6 at 9:15 PM at Isabel Bader

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Pat Mullen is POV’s Associate Online Editor, etc. He covers film at Cinemablographer.com, and has contributed to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, BeatRoute, Modern Times Review, and Documentary magazine and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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