Netflixable? Documentary explores the history of “The American Meme”

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It’s always helpful to remember how we got here.

The “now,” of Internet celebrities, Youtube “stars” and web notoriety being turned into cash had to start somewhere, with someone, right?

“The American Meme” traces this democratized/Americanized form of “celebrity” back to its origins and profiles some of the web’s more notorious creations in a generally entertaining and somewhat illuminating account of recent history.

I’ve scratched my head over the many appearances of DJ Khaled in films — granted, mostly on Netflix — and in other media. Where’d this music impresario and famous face — with no discernible talent other than self-promotion, come from? He invented himself on the Internet, via Vine and other web platforms, “sharing” his life, pushing his accessibility through a catch phrase — “Fan Luv.”

Dane Cook was a comic who came from nowhere, but not really. He was a MySpace phenomenon long before the sold-out tours, movie appearances and best-selling concert videos and recordings made him rich.

Emily Ratajkowski was “the ‘Blurred Lines’ model” who turned that nude appearance on a music video into a career, one driven by social media “branding.”

Kirill Bichutsky is a sort of conceptual comic/photographer seen, in one stunt, buying liquor in a unicorn costume, guzzling the whole bottle on the street outside the store where he made his purchase. He’s built a one-man “Girl’s Gone Wild” business out of his ability to show up at clubs for paid appearances, pour champagne all over willing, uninhibited women, and drink with the club’s patrons until the crack of dawn. He’s a purveyor of “life of the party” antics, thanks to showing those (often topless, always sexually suggestive) photos and videos of champagne showers on the Internet.

Josh Ostrovsky reinvented himself with a “hair erection” hairstyle and as a joke-and-meme stealing Web persona, “Fat Jew/Fat Jewish.” He didn’t let a scandal — joke stealing is a no-no — curb his web-driven career.

Because Ostrovsky is pals with the Internet’s Original Creation, Paris Hilton. She parlayed a famous name, good looks, a willingness to show skin and a humiliating sex tape scandal into a billion dollar empire of brand, scents and all sorts of Paris-tagged merchandise.

As Ostrovsky declares, “The way we think about ‘influence’ was invented by Paris Hilton.”

Brittany Furlan, a self-made Vine comic of good looks, funny voices, uninhibited brio and a genius for attention-grabbing self-and-Paris Hilton mockery on the now-defunct web platform’s short videos, made her reputation, at least in part, via a killer Paris Hilton impersonation.

Writer-director Bert Marcus doesn’t need The Kardashians (barely mentioned) for this history. They just followed in Hilton’s stiletto footsteps — an online sex tape turned into a family empire driven by web popularity, monetized via direct “influencer” payments, fashion businesses, TV shows and appearance fees.

The collected subjects here break down how its done.

Fat Jewish — “The Internet’s f—–g fickle. SOMEone be crazy. SOMEone impress me.”

Emily R. — “There is no privacy any more. Photos are not just for yourself any more.” Our online narcissism, and hers, is “fourth wave feminism.”

Khaled, a Snapchat star — “It’s really empowering. I reach 15 million people…but you can pick up a phone and share your talents with the world!”

One and all agree with Emily R’s assertion that Andy Warhol was right. Everybody gets to be famous for 15 minutes.

Furlan, seen in old home movies and having the closest thing to her whole life’s story told here, came to LA — struggled to get a foot in the door as a comic and an actress. Vine’s short conceptual (one joke, a sight gag or a funny voice, just a few seconds long) video platform allowed her to showcase her wit — and her willingness to do anything for attention.

“She didn’t need anybody’s permission or money,” her father marvels. “She could just do it.”

“I’m a 30 year old woman, and this is what I’m doing,” Furlan says, working on an elaborately conceived mockery of the naked pregnant Beyonce photo that might not pay off. “Pray for me!”
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There are skeptics, those who look at the rich kid who took a selfie with Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl, the “hunky convict,” the “Cash me ousside” girl, and wonder if Dane Cook is a sage when he says “I don’t feel that ‘fame’ is ‘fame’ any more.”

“Ask a bunch of kids what they want to be when they grow up, and they’ll say ‘Famous.’ Like it’s a job.”

Kirill Bichutsky seems the most jaded of all, claiming “I got sucked into night life” and that he cannot escape. He trained as a Disney animator and a stand-up comic. Then he found his entre — taking pictures at parties, getting shots of famous folks that earned him access to others. He was everywhere the rest of his peers, on the web, wanted to be — parties, clubs, etc.

And then he stumbled into the champagne showers “#slutwhisperer” thing, which blew up on every platform that didn’t ban him.

Hilton, given her own complete profile by Marcus (home movies, sitting with her mom perusing old family photo albums) comes off as much more self-aware and thoughtful than she ever has before.

Closing in on 40, widely imitated (perezhilton.com), trapped in “a bubble where I’m 21 forever,” she echoes other’s complaints about the loneliness and trap that being on this fame-generates-fame merry-go-round is.

“I would love to have my own clone. Send it to China and I could stay home and chill.” This web-generated image is “not real life at all.”

Let the criticism that she created a world wide web of narcissism wait for another day.

Marcus gets the history right, and including web creations like model and “Bieber-wife” Hailey Baldwin Bieber in the blur of interviews, gossip TV snippets and web videos he samples, he makes a strong case for a world that’s changed in a heartbeat with nobody really knowing what happens to these people when web fame ends.

They’re all facing it, and soon.

But Hilton, shown motion-capturing herself for an online avatar of Paris in her 30something perfection, might be the best prepared to be the last Internet icon standing. That “21 forever” thing, her wish that she could have a clone? This dizzy blonde is doing something about it.

“The American Meme” comes to Netflix Dec. 7.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, alcohol abuse and profanity.

Cast: Paris Hilton, Brittany Furlan, Josh Ostrovsky, DJ Khaled, Dane Cook, Emily Ratajkowski, Kirill Bichutsky

Credits: Written and directed by Bert Marcus. A Netflix Release.

Running time: 1:30

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