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Netflix’s new three-part documentary The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist explores the infamous group of teenagers who broke into the mansions of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan in 2008–9, carrying off $3 million in clothing, cash, and jewelry. The story’s jaw-dropping particulars—high-profile victims, well-to-do kids pulling off professional crimes, and their brazen reactions after being caught—ignited a tabloid-friendly firestorm that’s burned for over a decade.
Far from rehashing a stale saga, the new Netflix series is highly relevant in 2022. Now more than ever, ubiquitous digital life distorts our morality, humanity, and identity—wooing us into a world we think we want until, like the members of the Bling Ring, we end up fractured by the very things we thought would make us whole.
In the digital age, morality is measured by the urgency of your hashtags more than by the depth of your habits. To be sure, digital platforms can be useful in speaking truth and advocating for justice. But just as readily, technology makes hypocrisy—the log-ignoring, speck-in-their-eye, judging type that Jesus warns about—as effortless as tapping your thumbs.
A cringy example in the documentary is Paris Hilton, who, after having her mansion repeatedly burglarized by the Bling Ring, allows a film crew into her house to shoot scenes for Sofia Coppola’s 2013 film about the burglaries. Flanked by red carpet cameras at the movie’s premiere, Hilton declares, “When people watch this film, they’re gonna see what our culture is like and just how celebrity-obsessed it is, and things need to change. People need to have more important priorities and other things to aspire to, because this is crazy.”
While I empathize with Hilton’s distress at having her privacy violated, her caution against celebrity obsession ignores her own complicity in it. She’s not alone. Virtually all the adults in the story, including parents of the perpetrators, lawyers, and even police officers, leverage the limelight to boost their platforms. They spew platitudes about “kids these days” being spellbound by social media and celebrity, even as they seek to milk the same system.
How many of us are complicit too? The lure of likes, platform building, and celebrity power is intoxicating, and the potential of it (however illusory) has never been more plausible. This is why Christians should be cautious of our motivations when we pick up a phone or log on to social media. Beware of algorithms that always make you the hero of the story.
The digital age dehumanizes, serving up image-bearers as two-dimensional caricatures for clickbait-hungry consumers. We see this in how the Bling Ring exploits celebrities, treating them as pawns in their own fame pursuit instead of as real people. Online, humans we “adore” quickly can become idols we use—just like any consumer product—for our own purposes.
Beware of algorithms that always make you the hero of the story.
To its credit, the documentary also invites us to acknowledge the humanity of the Bling Ring teens themselves, offering snapshots of their pain that most media coverage ignores. Lest the public see nothing more than Porsche-stealing, drug-slinging Calabasas snobs, we hear heartbreaking insights, especially from Alexis Neiers.
Neiers’s father, who worked on the set of Friends, abandoned the family after having an affair. Her mother started modeling lingerie at age 16, eventually posing for Playboy. With disturbing passivity, she allows her daughter to do drugs, party at high-end clubs, and fly unsupervised on private jets with older men—all in the name of “furthering Alexis’s career.” Crippled by debt, the family moves nine times, eventually allowing E! to turn their familial dysfunction into reality entertainment. All this made Neiers’s drug addiction worse:
There were many low points. Panhandling: low point. Considering prostitution: low point. Being raped: low point. Losing a relationship with my family: low point. Going to jail: low point. I thought I was going to die a number of times.
It’s easy to lampoon rich kids like Neiers, turning them into memes, cheering as they get what they deserve (or maybe egging them on as they play the remorseless renegade). But all this smacks of arrogance, treating tritely someone God deems precious.
In the digital age, identity is defined less and less by who you actually are and more by who you choose to be—even if the person you “present” is utterly implausible. A limitless, malleable identity sounds empowering, but it’s inescapably absurd, as seen in the life of Nick Prugo (a founding member of the Bling Ring).
Prugo, desperate for friends in a new city, lies about being a “fashion consultant” to garner respect, giving away stolen designer clothes to solidify his fake persona. Over time, he begins to believe his own lie, footing thousand-dollar club tabs with dirty money. After stealing an expensive car, he asserts, “It made me feel like who I was. It felt like it was a reflection of me.”
Back when these crimes took place, Prugo only had Facebook. Now Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and Twitter offer ever-intoxicating ways to gain status by presenting your idealized self. Why do we do it? Because it works. For a while at least, we get what we want.
But eventually, reality punches a hole through fantasy. Today, Prugo’s fooling no one. Alexis Neiers’s thick Valley Girl accent, so audible in her teenage years, seems to have subconsciously faded as she’s drifted from her former Hollywood subculture. In the documentary’s final montage, the backgrounds of each interviewee—which until now appeared to be beautifully lit, luxurious spaces—slowly fade into a green screen.
Meanwhile, the voice of Markus Dombois, Prugo’s sage-like lawyer, explains the symbolism:
This story is a warning that if we are not careful, we’re gonna end up in a world where the line between reality and fantasy is so blurred, we will no longer be defined by who we are, but who we think we have to be. Those kids were willing to do whatever it took to get the validation they craved so badly from others. And now through this film, you have given them exactly what they wanted back then. Everyone’s looking for that. I mean, I’m here talking to the cameras, so I may be looking for it too.
Standing Firm (Sometimes) Means Sitting Out
It’s tempting to naively underestimate the soul-shaping power of digital life, assuming that good intentions will protect us: “I use social media evangelistically or sparingly” or “I would never find my identity in likes or retweets” or “I see every person as made in God’s image.”
Eventually, reality punches a hole through fantasy.
But mantras don’t form us: habits do. In the internet age, it’s frighteningly easy to fill our minds and feast our eyes on toxic things—not because we’re forced to but because we choose to.
If there’s one takeaway from the Bling Ring for the church, it’s that finding our identity in Christ—which is far more captivating and satisfying than any other counterfeit identity—is daily being undermined in ever-intoxicating ways. It will behoove us to intentionally withdraw at times from the digital circus—to willingly feel the ache of being out of the loop, uncelebrated by thousands of darting eyes—so we can find ourselves in him, not lose ourselves in the world.