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James Franco on 'The Bling Ring' and Celebrity Culture

How we feel about fame, what we’re willing to do to achieve it, and why we even want it, is a topic both fascinating and insidious. James Franco contemplates if the Bling Ring teens are just today's punks?

How we feel about fame, what people are willing to do to achieve it, and why anyone even cares are topics both fascinating and insidious. Let’s take the Bling Ring, for example. Nancy Jo Sales first told the tale of the band of teens who stole more than $3 million from various celebrities in a Vanity Fair article called “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” which she later expanded into the book The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World. In 2013, Sofia Coppola turned the book into a film starring Emma Watson.


As Sales points out in the book, as a society we can’t take our eyes off the miscreant youth and misbehaving privileged kids. They are the modern-day Prince Hals, robbing and carousing before they become King Henrys; they possess all the beauty and potential of youth, but they wallow in destruction rather than achievement. When an older generation witnesses this destructive path, the defiance of a younger generation ignoring their privilege, we collectively think, Kids these days are worse than ever. In the preface to the book, Coppola even utters the same notion. She tells Sales how she feels like an old fogey for being appalled at the Bling Ring teens’ obsession with fame, celebrity gossip, and the lifestyles of the stars; she tracks the current intensification of celebrity obsession to the moment that Us became a weekly magazine and the coverage of young celebrities exploded, birthing the even more gossip-thirsty sharks on the order of TMZ and Perez Hilton. Yet Coppola’s movie eludes critiquing the culture that disgusts her in the first place. Sure, it had those intentions: While her characters are certainly not role models—they are shallow, callous, and delusional—their lifestyle stills seems fun, free-spirited, and overall glamorous. What teen doesn’t want to drive around listening to gangster rap, skip class and go to the beach, get drunk at parties, hang out in clubs, and flaunt designer clothes? The robbery becomes their thing, their key to the 15 minutes of fame, their access to the dreamscape of celebrity paradise beyond their computer screens where their ostensible idols—Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Miranda Kerr, and the like—live.


They want to be famous, and the article, movie, and book will help them do just that. The LA Times bestowed the thieves with their “Bling Ring” moniker; it makes them sound like a cool clique rather than a bunch of aimless hooligans. The attention they received then and since is the natural extensions of these youths’ pretensions. In this age of media frenzy and quantifiable digital attention—“How many likes did it get?”—there is no such thing as bad gossip.

Sales wrote the book with the intention of examining and critiquing that sort of sick culture. But inevitably, the more she shines her light on these attention-starved degenerates, the more they seem to sparkle in the glare of attention. In his book about comic book characters, Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, Grant Morrison traces a swinging cultural pendulum between the rebelliousness of punks and hippies, meaning the inflections of rebellion take on the trappings of these two categories, and his contention is that the pendulum shifts between these poles every 20 years. In an age that is more about appropriation, cutting-and-pasting, DIY, postmodernist self creation—an age in which Jonathan Lethem’s “Ecstasy of Influence” is more and more at playare the Bling Ring teens just social media’s version of punks? If so, that is infinitely sad and interesting.

But it would make perfect sense. These kids were raised in a culture in which attention equals power, regardless of the value of that attention and the actions that captured it. We have long showered the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan with such power. The Bling Ringers are only flowing in line with what they’ve been taught, or learned through osmosis depending on your point of view. It’s not what magazines and websites say about the celebrities that the Bling Ringers listen to; it’s the fact that they’re saying stuff about them at all. Of course, their actions aren’t solely driven by attention; money also inspires the special sheen that shines following their drunken antics, and all of this combined is the reason that the Bling Ringers steal and continue to be seen as notable members of society rather than ragdolls for inmates in various Los Angeles County prisons.

If money and attention were the two biggest barriers initially standing in the way of the Bling Ringers' becoming the next Paris or Lindsay, then it makes total sense that their formula for gaining fame was stealing things from celebrities and hoping to get caught. This hope is obvious in hindsight; they were turned in by an anonymous tip after bragging to their Calabasas social scene about their multiple burglaries. They appropriated these stars’ media attention, “earning” the perfect wardrobes and street cred needed to make a true splash and land their own reality shows—punk rebellion repackaged in the age of appropriation. (The fact is not lost on me that this is also evidenced by my writing about them here.)

This is the beauty and terror of youth culture today. It’s what Harmony Korine explored in Spring Breakers: If everything looks great, if we live our lives like we’re in a movie, maybe it will actually be a movie. In Sales’s book, one of the Bling Ringers talks about being “FOF”—Famous on Facebook—as an indication of being a star, at least in her own world. We all want into the citadel, but sadly, one of the access points to that citadel is now infamy.