In the now-obligatory opening sizzle-reel of The Real Bling Ring, a prosecutor describes the story that we’re about to watch as ‘a f**ked up LA Greek tragedy’. I was hooked immediately. In this story, she says, the defendants wanted to be famous, their lawyers wanted to be famous, and the cops involved wanted to be famous. “It’s something that could only happen in Hollywood,” she adds wryly, only half-registering that she, too, is on camera.
The three-part Netflix true crime documentary revisits the infamous serial burglaries that were previously dramatised in director Sofia Coppola’s 2013 film The Bling Ring. The film presented a moderately fictionalised version of the crimes, which were perpetrated by a gang of fame-hungry teenagers who broke into and robbed the houses of celebrities who, through sheer bad luck, found themselves at the peak of the Hollywood A-list in 2008. Merely a glance at the list of their targets — Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Audrina Patridge — could make you instinctively scrounge around for the BlackBerry that hasn’t been in your pocket for over a decade.
Unlike the film, The Real Bling Ring ostensibly presents something closer to the truth, although it has great fun pitting two members of the ‘Bling Ring’ — Nick Prugo and Alexis Neiers — against each other. Nick and Alexis narrate conflicting versions of the events in their own words, and episode two features an electric scene in which they contradict each other’s claims in real-time. They aren’t in the same room — they probably hate each other — but that doesn’t stop the documentary from fanning the flames.
But in addition to these slickly edited sequences, designed purely to set tongues wagging, the series also takes the occasional stab at profundity. While attempting to dissect a very particular period in the history of celebrity culture, The Real Bling Ring has the audacity to suggest that the case set the ball rolling down a path that would end with Donald Trump being elected president.
This was the era of MySpace and BBM, of TMZ and reality television. Beneath the show’s glossy exterior, there is a story about the class divide and upward social mobility; of fame for fame’s sake and just how willing people are to sell their souls for it. The ringleader Nick was a queer teen from The Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles that one smarmy real estate agent describes in the series as the place people go to if they can’t afford to live in LA. Alexis, on the other hand, was thrust into a highly seedy life at a very young age by her opportunistic stage mom.
The debauchery on display, especially in the first episode, is quite stunning. Attempting to ape Kim Kardashian’s path to fame, Alexis’ mother turned her into a pinup model by faking her age. At 17, Alexis was dancing naked in a Marilyn Manson music video with an eight-ball of cocaine waiting for her in the greenroom. While an aura of tragedy hangs over every minute of The Real Bling Ring, Alexis’ story, which involves severe drug addiction and abuse, is sadder than Nick’s. There’s a strong sense that, in addition to the people she robbed, she, too, is a victim. And despite the sobriety and stability that she has now allowed into her life, it appears that she still isn’t ready to come to terms with what happened.
But for all his visible sociopathy, Nick comes across as pretty straightforward. He displays zero remorse for his actions, and on occasion, almost appears to be reminiscing about the crimes like a has-been movie star looking back at his glory days in showbiz. He describes the cocaine that he once found at Paris Hilton’s house as real ‘Scarface coke’. Later, while recounting the events leading up to another burglary, he says that he made sure to be in control of his faculties. “I was more drunk than normal, so I did a bit of coke and sobered myself up,” he says with a straight face, before being hit by the absurdity of his words.
Nick is ‘bothered’ that Coppola’s movie made Alexis out to be the ringleader, a perception that was exacerbated by Emma Watson’s casting as Alexis. From the moment people saw Watson in the film’s trailer, in a moment that contributed to an entire generation’s coming of age and has since been immortalised in GIF form, there was no doubt that she was the star of the show. Except that she wasn’t. Alexis participated in just one robbery, we’re told.
The Real Bling Ring doesn’t quite glamorise its shady subjects in the way that The Wolf of Wall Street did, but it doesn’t make any radical observations about the decline of culture either. Your enjoyment of it will be directly proportional to your appetite for nicely-packaged junk.
The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist
Director – Miles Blayden-Ryall
Rating – 3.5/5