The American Meme, a Netflix documentary directed by Bert Marcus, promises to plumb the depths of social media culture. Ultimately, it’s as shallow—and undeniably addictive—as its subjects.
While the very notion of a documentary promises intellectual heft, The American Meme is really just the dressed-up, distant cousin of a viral Vine video. It plays to the very same desires it seeks to interrogate: to be amused, and to watch really famous people perform authenticity. As social criticism, the documentary, which favors the musings of celebrities with high follower counts over the insights of tweedish talking heads, falls short (an example insight from Dane Cook: “You’re famous instantly. Does that mean you’re gonna be not famous instantly?”) But as content, The American Meme more or less succeeds, thanks in large part to subjects like Paris Hilton, the Fat Jewish, Brittany Furlan and Hailey Bieber.
No wonder then that the films’ initial litany of doomsday theses—social media is an addiction, kids these days aspire to be famous on the internet, and they’ll even eat Tide Pods to do it—eventually gives way to a more complicated view of insta-celebrity. As the documentary switches between Instagram posts, Snapchat monologues and filmed interviews, it not-so-subtly implies that the line between reality and social media has been inalterably blurred. Whether an online influencer will take advantage of this confusion to parlay viral infamy into IRL success, or simply go insane, is the question at the heart of The American Meme.
If online celebrity is a game with real-world implications that we are only just beginning to understand, then Paris Hilton is the gamemaker—or as The Fat Jewish puts it, “the modern-day ideas of celebrity, of brands, of marketing, the way that we think about influence—this was all invented by Paris Hilton… Paris is a straight-up fucking icon.” Hilton, with her army of tiny dogs and closet full of tiaras, makes the film. Everything she says is either heartbreaking or hilarious or both, and you never quite know if she’s being sincere or playing the camera for sympathy and laughs. Her trajectory, as she chooses to tell it, is a branding success story. Hilton went from a paparazzi-stalked rebel heiress with a sex-tape scandal to an incredibly successful businesswoman with total control over her image.
Reflecting back on her pre-social media fame, Hilton seems truly disillusioned. “I don’t really trust people,” she explains near the beginning of the documentary. “I’ve just grown accustomed to being fucked over.” Putting the Louis Vuitton luggage and the childhood pictures with Andy Warhol aside, Hilton’s story echoes that of the other social media strivers who fill out the film. From a young age, she knew that she wanted to be famous—“I just wanted to be known as Paris, and not be known as the Hilton hotel granddaughter.” She had to learn to endure a level of casual cruelty that most of us could never imagine. Wiping away tears with her acrylics, Hilton discusses the trauma of her leaked sex tape, how “overnight, my entire life changed.” She didn’t leave her house for months, because “I felt like everyone on the street was laughing at me.”
“It was like being raped. It felt like I’ve lost part of my soul,” she continues. “I literally wanted to die at some points… I didn’t want to be known as that.”
Legacy is a recurring theme throughout the film. Internet fame feels fleeting, as billions of people vie for views, but posts live forever. A regrettable social media trail follows you everywhere, and it often feels like the only way to change the conversation is to flood your feeds with more content. For someone like Paris Hilton, that can mean opportunities for constant reinvention. For someone like Kirill, a social media-famous party photographer and The American Meme’s cautionary tale, it feels more like a trap. Creators who don’t have Hilton’s financial cushion don’t have as much freedom to pivot, and find themselves forced to embody a character on social media that they’ve outgrown. What happens to a thirtysomething man who posts under the handle “slutwhisperer” and tours across the country partying with strangers to pay his rent? Kirill’s online presence has manifested a daily existence that’s barely livable; by contrast, Hilton sees the internet as the one place where she can actually let her guard down, and connect with her fans across the world, whom she describes as “really like my family.”
Of course, Hilton’s passionate fan base and bajillion businesses, not to mention the fact that she’s a household name, are part of the reason why she doesn’t have a family of her own. “Sometimes I’m like, do I really want to do this anymore?” she confesses. She mentions friends who stay home with their partners and kids, who are “not at red carpets in Ibiza and at Ultra and Coachella.” On the other hand, Hilton says that she’s been “a 21-year-old for the past two decades… You’re almost like stuck in this character… It’s not real life at all.”
The American Meme comes up empty when it grasps at big ideas. Subjects like harmful beauty standards, toxic fandoms, and mental health and addiction are clearly relevant, but deserve more individual attention than one film is capable of giving. The film is strongest when it’s exploring the ecosystem of social-media stars and influencers with brutal specificity. While an untrained eye might group together all of the documentary’s highly-followed subjects, there’s a clear hierarchy here between the haves and the hustlers. The camera goes from lovingly panning over Hilton’s closet to shadily glancing at Brittany Furlan’s rack of Just Fab shoes. Furlan, a former Vine celebrity, gets clicks with her over-the-top characters and parodies of A-listers like Paris Hilton. At one point, she stages a photoshoot in her living room in the style of Beyoncé’s famously pregnancy pictures, puffing out her stomach and eating a burrito. She posts it online only to see that The Fat Jewish already satirized the shoot. “260,000 likes, I’ll never be that popular,” she notes.
The Fat Jewish, like Hilton, is held up as an example of someone who’s forged something sustainable through social media—White Girl Rosé, “the most Instagrammed bottle on the internet.” Since the internet is so fickle, The Fat Jewish explains, “I had to create something that I’d be able to walk away with.” He predicts, “The age of the digital influencer, I’m telling you, it’s going to fucking crash.”
But until that day, social media-savvy celebs are going to keep cashing in. Hailey Bieber jokes about how she can’t post about things she likes without her agent getting mad at her for promoting for free. She adds, “The most I’ve made off a single post is $150,000. I’ve heard of people making $1 million off of one photo.” She also reveals that she’s “definitely lost [modeling] jobs to girls who had more followers than I did.” She continues, somewhat awestruck, “There’s girls that are getting that recognition overnight because of an app.”
Emily Ratajkowski and DJ Khaled surface every so often as social media cheerleaders—celebrities who have mastered the art of curating their content, and have reached new professional heights thanks to their online presence. When Ratajkowski declares that “privacy is dead,” she seems to be genuinely unbothered.
One of the documentary’s highlights is a scene in which Paris Hilton and The Fat Jewish team up to troll the internet, debuting a fake line of clothing and accessories for baby DJs called “bottle service.” Their Instagram live gets over 2 million views, and respected websites cover the “launch.” The American Meme ends on a new, real venture of Hilton’s—she wants to create an online space for her and her fans, the “little Hiltons,” and DJ in virtual reality. “I’m basically over going out in real life, so I wanted to create a virtual world,” she explains. Thanks to evolving technology, she can create an avatar that’s entirely to her liking, and give her fans yet another way to access the “real” Paris. Fittingly, Hilton gets the last line of the film: “A lot of people don’t understand that you need to be sustainable forever.”