Actor Adrian Grenier is most famous for playing a young, famous actor on HBO's Entourage, so that gives him a somewhat unique perch from which to assay the curious nature of celebrity and the often aggressive shutterbugs that, in symbiotic if frequently somewhat diseased fashion, make their living off of snapping as many pictures as possible of actors, athletes and other figures in the public eye. And it's just that high-ground perspective that informs and elevates his entertaining and thought-provoking new documentary Teenage Paparazzo.
The movie, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and makes its bow this week on HBO, jointly documents the actor's well-mannered exasperation and irritation with paparazzi, and his burgeoning personal relationship with 14-year-old Austin Visschedyk, a home-schooled shutterbug whose parents routinely let him troll around Hollywood streets until midnight and beyond, stalking dining and partying celebrities like Grenier. Further contextualizing this vivid, unusual relationship are interviews Grenier conducts with other celebs (Paris Hilton, Eva Longoria, Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg and Matt Damon) as well as psychologists and historians, who weigh in on the changing nature of fame, notoriety and gossip in the New Media age.
Young Austin is precocious, characteristically self-centered, and possessing of the same type of moppy-haired bangs that Justin Bieber has recently made all the rage, but he's also a more complex figure than on the surface he might seem. The title conjures up very specific (and not at all positive) notions of parental neglect and failure, but in the beginning Austin seems less obsessed with celebrities than merely excited by the thrill of a chase — in getting a picture of a personal moment. He's something of a snob ("Hell no, I'm not following anyone from Dancing with the Stars!"), but more because of the monetary value of his work. Yes, while not yet able to drive, Austin rakes in hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for his photos.
The inherently navel-gazing nature of Teenage Paparazzo sort of cuts both ways. While on the surface it seems like it could come off as little more than a well-funded incursion into woe-is-me self-analysis — and it very occasionally tilts in this direction — Grenier's film doesn't merely spotlight the antagonism between paparazzi and their subjects, it also digs into the mutual-use nature of their relationships. (Hilton is an especially interesting and enlightening interview subject on this front, even if a segment in which Grenier explains the story of Narcissus to her comes off as unintentionally hilarious.) If Grenier is a bit hands-off with Austin's parents — wanting to retain their participation and cooperation, and so approaching their son with a bit of a clinical, "hey-that's-cool" alien distance — his subject eventually obliges him, exhibiting increasingly bratty behavior, and morphing into a miniaturized version of some of the same prissy, entitled rich folks he spends his time shooting. (A proposed E! reality show centered around Austin helps fuel this fire, and provide an ironic production-crew-pileup that Christopher Guest would surely appreciate.)
Grenier has a certain laconic charm, and so his movie is incredibly spry and facile, and thus entertaining in a base-level, empty-caloric sort of way. But it's also at its best when really, substantively trying to dig into the nature of falsely intimate, one-way connections between massively marketed celebrities and their fans, or "parasocial" relationships — as it does in a conversation between the filmmaker and a social scientist at Fenway Park that is interrupted by a (slightly inebriated) fan who tells Grenier, "I'm not trying to be gay, but I love you," and, "This'll get me so much ass on Facebook, you have no idea!"
This candid, unplanned interaction, and other moments in the film, seems to lend credence to the idea that unlike past generations, or milennia ago — when we would each achieve some measure of notoriety and recognition within our smaller social structures — fame for fame's sake is in the digital age, with connected societies and worldwide economies, now its own surging currency, and something to be valued over more tangible personal qualities, like talent or intelligence. (Italian import Videocracy, another documentary, also has some interesting insights in this regard.) It's an unsettling thought, perhaps, but ultimately also a humanizing one; as Teenage Paparazzo shows us, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but it ultimately cannot capture a human being in all their complexity. For more information on the film, click here. (HBO/Reckless Productions, unrated, 100 minutes)