Fake Famous | Review

by Andrew Parker

Fake Famous is an engaging and intelligent documentary about modern consumer culture, told in a way that’s usually annoying and cliched, but somehow it works perfectly for what director/mastermind Nick Bilton is trying to accomplish here. A first-hand account of how to build a social media influencer from the ground up, Fake Famous is best described – both positively and negatively – as a piece of stunt journalism. Bilton goes to great and sometimes purposefully self-deprecating lengths to be up-front about the artifice of his project. That artificiality is key to depicting a certain sort of sought after lifestyle that’s built upon making things seem a lot rosier than reality.

Bilton has spent most of his career as a journalist covering social media issues, so he knows more than a thing or two about influencer culture going into his first film as a director. He has seen the rise of the selfie first hand and expresses concerns about how it has become a form of social currency. Moreover, he has seen the emergence of a disturbing new trend. Instead of kids wanting to become doctors, astronauts, police officers, or artists, the profession of influencer has become the most sought after occupation on earth. And it’s not hard to see why. Ostensibly, being an influencer means corporations will pay someone to look good on camera, and “be themselves” while shilling for a product or service. It seems like an easy life to lead, but behind all those effortlessly posed, cropped, and filtered photos lies a lot of hard work. On top of that, Bilton is irked by the same persistent question: does having between 100,000 and 100,000,000 social media followers actually make someone famous?

To get to the heart of social media’s obsession with influence and separate it from actual fame, Bilton devises an experiment. Fake Famous begins with a seemingly traditional Los Angeles casting call. From this, Bilton chooses three human subjects that he can help turn into social media superstars, with the catch being that these people can’t become famous via their talents alone or a preexisting lifestyle. There’s Dominique Druckman, a struggling actress who works in the shipping department at a trendy Beverly Hills clothier between gigs and auditions. Chris Bailey is a black, confident, headstrong young man who moved to L.A. from Tucson a year ago to start up his own fashion concept. Wylie Heiner is an average, shy, and kindhearted gay twentysomething; born in Atlanta and currently working as the assistant to a luxury realtor.

From the outset, Fake Famous takes the tone of an old timey news magazine piece, which is initially disappointing, but probably a good fit given Bilton’s background. Any problems with tone quickly drift away once Bilton’s experiment begins in earnest. Bailey has a decent social media presence to start with – one he’s proud of because he actually did cultivate it by being himself – but the same can’t be said for the other two. The first thing Bilton does for all of them is to employ a common trick used by many influencers, budding brands, and celebrities when building a social media presence: they buy followers, comments, and likes from any number of shady companies that will provide hundreds upon thousands of bots for a price. As long as Instagram and other platforms don’t go poking around too much, and people don’t get greedy enough to trip the algorithms employed by many brands and marketers these days, it doesn’t matter if someone’s followers are fake. All that matters is the number. The two key things to remember are that the beast must be fed, and that influencers must do a good job of faking the lifestyle they desire before they can actually achieve their dreams.

Fake Famous works because there’s always a degree of unpredictability, and nothing works out exactly as Bilton planned. Bilton – who is just as much an on screen entity as his three chosen subjects – is constantly on his phone, either setting up hilariously faked photo shoots for his “clients” or spending large sums of money to make sure their social media profiles are on the rise. It seems exhausting and mentally draining for all involved, and Fake Famous does pay some unwitting respect to influencers. It’s hard work trying to constantly make one’s life look as tantalizing and glamorous as possible to a bunch of strangers they’ve never met and bots that don’t even exist. To Bilton’s immense credit, he’s always transparent with his subjects, carrying on dialogues with them about their concerns, and letting them know about every potentially underhanded tactic he’s going to employ in a bid to make them famous. Bilton didn’t sign up to become a “brand ambassador,” but that’s precisely what he has to become for the sake of his film.

Bilton has also found three perfect subjects who all experience different trajectories. This “social experiment” works wonders for one of them. Another is turned off by the rise of disapproving friends and online trolls, triggering their anxiety and creating an unhealthy rise in OCD tendencies. And one of them simply doesn’t give a fuck, pretty much sabotaging Bilton’s experiment on the sly, for reasons both understandable and self-serving. All three of the people profiled in Fake Famous are highly intelligent and emotionally assured people that are fascinating to follow. They are real people caught up in a fame seeking hell hole that works for some but will leave others devastated. Bilton and his subjects are doing everything possible to protect themselves, and the film wisely never tries to create some sort of Pygmalion myth. It spoils nothing to say that these subjects are the same people they are on the inside from the beginning until the end of Fake Famous, but they’ll all learn more about themselves and the world around them in the process.

It’s unfortunate that Fake Famous has to end in an awkward spot, thanks to the sudden emergence of the pandemic while shooting was taking place. Not everything can be adequately wrapped up in ways that Bilton was probably hoping for, but the filmmaker does use this setback as an opportunity to talk about something important. With the world shut down, brands are going to turn more and more to influencers who can make consumers think that everything in their lives is just hunky-dory. Who needs marketing and advertising departments anymore when there are plenty of people sitting around at home willing to do all that work for minimal cost and some free swag? The desperation of some brands to stay alive will rest solely on the shoulders of influencers, meaning the lessons that can be learned from Fake Famous are still evolving more rapidly than Bilton, his subjects, or anyone else could hope to keep up with. Being fake on the internet is only going to get harder. And it’s going to become a lot more profitable to those who can keep pace.

Fake Famous premieres on Crave in Canada and HBO Max in the U.S. on Tuesday, February 2, 2021 at 9:00 pm EST/PST.

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