Few series have made Hollywood and its fame-hungry residents look more pitiful, shameful, and altogether gross as The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist, a three-part Netflix affair (Sept. 21) about the group of L.A. teens who committed a string of robberies—including, famously, on the homes of celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan—in the mid-to-late 2000s. Driven by interviews with two of the gang’s chief members, director Miles Blayden-Ryall’s docuseries is a story about how a nascent reality-centric pop culture and the rise of social media helped create a collection of entitled attention-craving kids who believed that the world was theirs for the taking, and that scandal was a surefire way to stardom. Which it was, in a certain sense—a notion underscored by the fact that they’re now headliners of their own Netflix project.
The non-fiction version of the tale that Sofia Coppola dramatized with 2013’s The Bling Ring, The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist is led by Nick Prugo, who as a high-schooler began robbing luxury vehicles in and around Los Angeles with his friend Rachel Lee. By this point, Nick had already had a handful of TV jobs, but as he tells it, what he most liked about the industry was less the craft of acting than the accoutrements that were its rewards. His illicit pastime with Rachel was thus intensely satisfying, allowing him to fashion himself as a rich, stylish person of interest. Given that this was the dawning era of Hilton, Kim Kardashian, The Osbournes and TMZ-enabled insta-celebrity predicated not on talent but, rather, on glamour, wealth, outrageousness, and notoriety, Nick was convinced that he was as cut out for fame as anyone else.
Having been allowed virtual entrée into the homes and lives of these 21st-century tastemakers (via Cribs and Perez Hilton’s tabloid site), Nick felt that he had every right to literally break into their abodes—something he soon began doing with Rachel. At the same time, he befriended Alexis Neiers (now Alexis Haines), who along with her sister Gabrielle and best friend/adopted sibling Tess were groomed for reality-TV fame by their mother Andrea, who outs herself in The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist as a showbiz momager from Hell. A former pin-up who admits to smoking weed with her daughters (in order to court their acceptance) and promotes her The Secret-inspired ethos that goals are manifested through positive thought—a sentiment she indoctrinated her kids with via daily mantras about thriving in the entertainment business—Andrea comes across like a cheery lunatic who bred Alexis to prize celebrity above all else. It was a shallow strategy that worked, netting the clan an E! show about their lives (Pretty Wild) produced by Amber Mazzola and Gennifer Gardiner.
While she was trying to launch her small-screen career, Alexis was also reaping the fruits of Nick and Rachel’s illegal labor, and she eventually agreed to join them (and accomplice Diana Tamayo) when they burglarized Bloom’s home of $550,000 in valuables. The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist features contradictory and laughably self-serving versions of that event from Nick and Alexis, yet the truth isn’t hard to ascertain. Both of these teenagers, along with their cohorts, were hard-partying, drug-abusing wild children who so longed to be like their Us Weekly idols that they had no qualms about sneaking into their mansions, taking and wearing their stuff, and embracing the infamy that followed—to the point that Alexis’ own prosecution became not only a storyline for Pretty Wild’s first and only season, but the actual narrative hook that Mazzola and Gardiner had coveted as a way of justifying the entire enterprise.
The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist is a textbook example of the snake eating its own tail, with young men and women doing whatever it takes to realize their paparazzi dreams, and then becoming famous for those very actions. Nick is open and forthright about his ambitions and the low self-esteem that begat them, whereas Alexis is far more defensive about her conduct and the motivations behind it. In both cases, however, it’s clear that a lifetime spent in a Hollywood bubble cultivated in them an instinctive yearning for the spotlight as well as its attendant designer shoes, handbags, and jewelry. In short, they come across as vacuous, materialistic and amoral, willing to indulge in any and all behavior that might further their aims, and Nick’s candidness and Alexis’ caginess play as two sides of the same coin: continuing calculated efforts to manicure their public image for personal gain.
Later revelations that Alexis’ defense attorney Jeffrey Rubenstein allegedly participated in disingenuous scripted scenes of Pretty Wild, that LAPD detective Brett Goodkin consulted on Coppola’s The Bling Ring, and that Nick chose a lawyer based on his looks and his threads rather than on his credentials (oops!) only amplify The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist’s portrait of Angelenos as absurdly obsessed with fame. While this isn’t a shock, it’s nonetheless italicized by Blayden-Ryall’s docuseries, which is itself torn between censure and celebration of its subjects, depicting them as covetous crooks and yet simultaneously gussying up their tale with the sort of glitzy, look-at-me flair (showy dramatic recreations, razzle-dazzle effects, fourth wall-breaking narration from Nick) that’s precisely what they craved in the first place. It’s a have-it-both-ways approach that’s less complicated than messy, although it does allow Nick to figuratively hang himself with every gleeful admission about the remorseless excitement he felt during his breaking-and-entering jaunts.
The emptiness of this showbiz world and the people it produces was blatantly evident during the heyday of Lohan, Hilton and their nightclub-frequenting ilk, and The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist revisits it with dutiful accuracy if a shortage of insight. Likewise, technology’s role in fostering this modern celebrity culture, as well as in facilitating Nick and company’s crimes, proves another unilluminating facet of this saga, whose ultimate conclusion seems to be that the Bling Ring’s spree was a byproduct of a particular moment in time that, depressingly, doesn’t really seem to have passed us by just yet.