Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book Review: The Bling Ring By Nancy Jo Sales

Nancy Jo Sales, whose brilliant Vanity Fair profile “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” inspired the movie The Bling Ring has written up the definitive account of the story. Combining rigorous original reporting, informed sources, observation of surveillance tapes, examination of court records as well as attributed accounts on the gossip sites at the time, Sales puts together a riveting account of the celebrity house robbery scandal that rocked Hollywood from October 2008 through August 2009. It isd a cautionary tale of how our kids are affected by our celebrity-driven culture. Ultimately, seven young men and women -- Nicholas Prugo, Rachel Lee, Alexis Neiers, Courtney Ames, Roy Lopez, Jr., Diana Tamayo, and Jonathan Ajar -- were responsible, to varying degrees, for the crimes. They have achieved, cynically enough, a measure of celebrity by robbing celebrities, in many cases, famous for nothing. There truly is no such thing as bad publicity.

The book, dedicated to her daughter, Zazie, begins with three years of distilled conversations between Sofia Coppola, the director of The Bling Ring, and author Nancy Jo Sales, on the nature of celebrity in our culture and the disturbing amounts of celebrity worship among the young. Coppola, the daughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, is genuine Hollywood royalty as well as being a mother, so she is uniquely qualified to meditate on the subject. "'I think Us Weekly changed everything,' Sofia said (at one meeting with Sales) referring to hos Us magazine went from being a monthly to a weekly in 2000, becoming more gossipy and invasive and igniting a huge boom in the coverage of celebrities." Sales turns the trained reporter's eye on Coppola, well adjusted, level-headed, and not obsessed by celebrity. Coppola hopes there is a reaction to The Bling Ring, a serious conversation about the obsession with celebrity, especially among the young. I do as well but am cynical.

Using Google maps and Facebook these "kids" essentially conducted the perfect metaphors for all that is wrong with youth culture's obsession with celebrity for the sake of celebrity as opposed to hard work, discipline and the developing talent -- virtues of another era. 77% of Americans believe that celebrities have too much of an influence on young girls according to a Newsweek poll. The Bling Ring, even more than that arid number, fully fleshes out that sentiment in detail. Nicholas Prugo, who spoke directly to Sales throughout the book, comes off as the most honest of the thieves. In the beginning he is a confused young man trying to hold the attention and friendship of the manipulative Rachel Lee. At the end, after changing legal counsel, he comes out gay and post rehab. He is, perhaps because of his honesty and his youth at the time of his crimes, the one we are most hoping to come out of this okay (Kudos, too, to Alexis Neiers, who appeared to have emerged from the experience a little richer in character). The others quite frankly are not quite so sympathetic.

The young thieves ended up stealing everything from Brian Austin Greene's Sig Sauer .380 semi-automatic handgun to Victoria's Secret supermodel Miranda Kerr's underwear. The total haul was estimated at a mindblowing $3 million worth of items. They stole from wannabe reality stars (Audrina Partridge, Paris Hilton) and actual celebrities Orlando Bloom). The motivation remains murky -- none of the young men and women are particularly self-reflective -- but essentially the reader comes away from the book feeling that the kids thought that in some way they were justified in the robberies because the celebrities involved didn't seem to deserve their property (Orlando Bloom was robbed as an after thought to his girlfriend).

This book is most interesting not just because of the fantastical narrative or even the rigorous journalism involved. The Bling Ring works best as a thoughtful sociological examination of the effects of empty celebrity culture on kids -- particularly women -- through the prism of the state's case against the kids. The spirit of that dedication, to her daughter -- and, I think, to all young women -- sees Sales through a thorough and necessary examination of one of the great problems of democratic capitalism at the present moment.

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