Originally posted during the Boston International Film Festival, this review is being republished as the movie is set to air on HBO tonight.
Asked what they’d like be when they grow up, and given — among other choices — CEO of a company, United States Senator, or one of many other prestigious positions in the employment world, 42 percent of all junior high students polled responded that they’d rather be a celebrity’s assistant. Not a celebrity: A celebrity’s assistant.
That’s messed up, people, but it’s also the state of our culture today. Nothing, it seems, is more prized than fame, yet many of those who have it absolutely loathe the downside, which is having rabid, ill-mannered, don’t-give-a-shit paparazzi trailing their every move.
That’s what “Entourage’s” Adrian Grenier explores in his documentary Teenage Paparazzo. There are a lot of surprising revelations in the doc, but perhaps none as surprising as this: Grenier is actually a very thoughtful, insightful, and intelligent celebrity. He’s also the perfect choice to direct this doc, since what he’s best known for is playing a celebrity who is often hounded by the paparazzi, a notion that’s been mirrored in his real life.
Grenier’s exploration of celebrity is focused on 13-year-old Austin Visschedyk, a Hollywood kid who decided to become a paparazzi. There’s a lot of problems with this from the beginning, not least of all is what kind of kid’s parents allow him to roam the streets of Los Angeles at 2 a.m. to take pictures of celebrities. (The answer: Well-meaning, overly trusting, wealthy Hollywood types without a lot of common sense). Austin quickly became a successful paparazzi because of the kind of access a disarmingly cute kid can gain from celebrities. All the major celebs seem to be familiar with him. Grenier, in fact, was introduced to him by way of a blinding series of flash photographs.
In following Austin, Grenier gains his own access in the lives of the paparazzi, which allows him to humanize the individuals to some degree (particularly during one segment when Grenier spends a couple of days being a paparazzi). It’s not that they’re bad people, really — they’re just doing their jobs. The larger problem stems from the fact that there’s a lucrative market for these photographs in the first place.
The whys of that are deftly explored by a series of experts — like Jake Halpern, the author of Fame Junkies — and other celebrities like Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, and even Paris Hilton, who share their own experiences with the paparazzi and elucidate what they believe is behind that obsession with celebrity. The crux of it is this: As our culture gets more and more involved with the media — in front of computers, televisions, and our iPhones — we spend less and less time with our friends and family. (For the average person, the only thing he or she does more than consume media is sleep). The result is a sort of alienation: We become more lonely. So, we develop parasocial relationships with celebrities, or one-sided friendships. The paparazzi’s role in these is central: Celebrity magazines want pictures of celebrities — preferably while they’re making eye contact with the camera or otherwise appear to be welcoming — because it allows those who consume these images to feel closer to our parasocial friends. Even the failures and humiliations of celebrities help us, in our real lives, to relate to one another. You can tell a lot about a person, it seems, by the way in which they react to Britney Spears’ parenting style.
What’s doubly interesting about the film is the shift it makes about three-quarters in: By virtue of the documentary, the 13-year-old Austin begins to experience some of his own celebrity — he’s featured on a number of newscasts and he’s even offered a reality show — which drives him further away from Grenier, who by the end of the project has to essentially stalk Austin — like a paparazzi member — to complete his film. Grenier, thankfully, is also very much aware that the manner in which he’s exploiting Austin for his doc is similar to the way in which Austin exploits celebrities for financial gain, Grenier makes that one of the central points of his thesis.
I was impressed with Teenage Paparazzo and, especially, the lengths to which Grenier went to prove his points, many of which are echoed in Halpern’s Fame Junkies. I appreciate even more that Grenier spent some time focusing on the other side, and on how a lot of celebrities — especially those who acquire their fame largely from celebrity magazines — rely on the paparazzi to provide their exposure. It was apparent that a lot of the paps — including Austin — were being tipped off to the whereabouts of celebrities by celebrities themselves, many of whom who feed their own egos by the number of cameramen following them around.
The most enlightening part of the doc, however, came in the section about how celeb magazines so obviously manufacture fake drama in order to sell their periodicals. To demonstrate the absurdity of it, Grenier tipped off the paparazzi to the fact that he’d be hanging out with Paris HIlton, and basically told them: I’m staging this for your benefit. It’s a fake story.
It didn’t matter. By the next day, according to the tabloids, Grenier and Hilton were an item, and all the celebrity magazines had the images to prove it.
A picture is worth a 1,000 lies.