Greed is Life: The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers

The Bling Ring and sister film Spring Breakers reflect a culture where greed is no longer merely good; it is a lifestyle choice.

In 1987, Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko famously decreed, “Greed is good.” Written to be a modern day imagining of Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost, Oliver Stone created Gekko to be a warning of what he saw as the newly burgeoning greed and evil consuming the trading floors of the Reagan years. It is perhaps the greatest irony that so many took Gekko’s words to heart; not as a dire prophecy of the direction American life was headed in, but as an inspirational quote to earn, earn and earn. Yet, over 30 years later that line no longer really applies. Sure, Stone attempted to revive his anti-villain in an overly sympathetic 2010 sequel, but the truth is that Gekko’s unapologetic uber-capitalism mantra does not properly convey life in the 21st century. Thirty-five years on, greed is not good. It is simply a state of being; a part of the American lifestyle. One no longer needs greed to drive ambition. It is but a formality to what we all expect we are owed for existing. A dirty secret that is more than whispered; it is screamed from the mountain (or skyscraper) top and heard like a ringing bell throughout a culture whose apathy is the closest thing to consent imaginable. Consider that five years ago, the global economy nearly was liquidated. Does it feel like any existential crisis has changed the conversation, much less the way lives are led? This sense of entitlement is so ubiquitous that filmmakers as varied as Martin Scorsese and Michael Bay felt the urgency to comment on it in their 2013 offerings. Not exactly directors with interchangeable sensibilities. But perhaps the most interesting attempts to reflect on this shift came in A24’s sister-projects, which try to contextualize millennials and youth culture to wildly varying results: Harmony Korine’s glitter bomb of a movie, Spring Breakers and Sofia Coppola’s now nationwide opening The Bling Ring.
 The Bling Ring, which first premiered to mixed buzz in Cannes last month, is a fascinating film about the vapidity found at the bottom of a frappuccino cup. Coppola’s recount of this stranger-than-fiction tale about a group of bored Beverly Hills high schoolers who did their shopping in the empty homes of Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Lindsay Lohan and several other celebrities has been accused of being superficial. But how can you make anything but that when your subject IS the superficial? Coppola goes to great pains, in her own selectively subtle way, to highlight how each of these upper middle class-to-rich kids live with absentee parents. Main character Marc (Israel Broussard) continues to own fancier and more fabulous brand name clothing that his parents seem to ignore. Whether he is on drugs or freaking out about the cops closing in on the news, his parents at most give an obligatory knock at the door to ask, “Is everything all right,” before carousing the downstairs for food. But he is lucky in comparison to Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) who are homeschooled by Nicki’s mother (Leslie Mann) in the spiritual wonders of New Age self-help The Secret nonsense. When entire classes center on “How we can be more like Angelina Jolie” and mom doesn’t even notice that her daughter is flirting and undressing with the bottled water deliveryman, clearly awareness is non-existent at home. Yes, Coppola took some liberties and none of these characters are named after their real life counterparts, however the reality is even weirder. Watson’s Nicki is based on real-life Alexis Neiers, who was allegedly robbing celebrities blind while also shooting her own reality show, Pretty Wild for E! Network, in an attempt to become a celebrity herself. The series was to chronicle her aspiring career as an LA model, but likely got made because her mother was Andrea Arlington, a former Playboy playmate. Given her reported bouts with drugs and scandal before and after her time popping the titular bling, Neiers should be happy at the level of empathy the film shows her despite vocal protests. In truth, Coppola does not hate these characters. As a daughter of a Hollywood name herself, Coppola has a great deal of understanding for those born into privilege and who are seduced into the frivolities of mandatory decadence. But while she cried tears for Marie Antoinette, the level of maddening stupidity in her muses this time cannot be denied.
 The question The Bling Ring repeatedly poses its amused (or disgusted) audience is what would possess these children of affluence to steal all that needless shit. But to these kids that is not even a comprehensible thought. Asking them why they want MTV Star Audrina Patridge’s Gucci purse would be like asking someone on the street why they need to breathe…in Latin. Even the wording would be foreign to them. Not only are Nicki and Sam based on would-be reality television stars, these kids actually LIVE their lives like those Kardashian shows are a form of reality, as opposed to poorly acted self-perpetuating PR machines. Despite the slow-motion Hermione lick that sold a million tickets, the real main characters of the film are Marc and the master to his dog, Rebecca (Katie Chang). The least hip or coolly dressed new kid in school, Marc is taken under Rebecca’s wing to do the heavy lifting of Googling which celebrities will be out of town on which days. Lindsay Lohan being her self-professed idol, Rebecca lives and breathes this crap. Hell, she may have gotten away with it if she kept robbing only her first mark, Paris Hilton. Unbelievably, the kids broke into Paris Hilton’s house about a half-dozen times before Ms. Hilton noticed anything was askew. In a setting that I hope is exaggerated—Coppola’s Paris decorates her house in pillows and framed magazine covers of her own face—they pet her dog, dance on her stripper pole and try on her clothes before picking their favorite outfits. It is not even clear if Marc is Gay. He openly admits in voiceover that he loves Rebecca…like a sister (kind of). But he also crossdresses and keeps a pair of Paris’ high heels under his bed. Does he bat for the other team? Does it matter? Sex is not important to these teenagers when materialism is far more arousing and satisfying than any contact.
 Even when they go to dance clubs to get their lickings, it is only to be seen in the same spots as Kirsten Dunst or Paris Hilton. They use celebrities’ money to party with them, but they are not living with them, even in the same space. They are taking countless cell phone pictures of being there, so that when it is on Facebook the next day, classmates and rivals can see them experiencing “the good life.” Only then will it become real. Like reality stars, it only counts if the cameras are on and someone is watching. Perhaps that is why they get caught. They are not ashamed or scared of their actions. They go to their high school parties to flaunt that they were at Paris’ last night and are headed to Rachel Bilson’s tomorrow. These celebrities that they see on E! are good friends who have them over frequently as preferred guests. And why wouldn’t they? Television says that they all live the highlife and you are invited to join in at any time. And popular music reinforces this constantly with a barrage of songs about living everyday like you’re on a boat. When The Lonely Island released that SNL digital short/nautical single, it was praised for being silly and inane, but with a catchy hook. Yet, it raises the group’s most hilarious and pointed criticism of popular music today: Why is it all about flaunting wealth? Pop music is dominated by what youth wants to hear. From the advent of the teenager in the ‘50s and the Elvis Pressley hips all the way to the snicker-inducing croons of Justin Timberlake during his N*Sync days, this meant love songs. Audible romance realized as wanting to “Hold Your Hand” or letting “My Heart Go On.” See Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! for a 2-hour run through of every love single produced between the mid ‘70s and early ‘90s. But strangely, that is less and less what people listen to anymore. Love has been supplanted by an even stronger emotion: want. JT is no longer singing about the girl “Tearing Up His Heart” and is instead reminding us that he’s putting on his “Suit and Tie,” getting ready to have a good time in rooms full of champagne and class. Which, to be fair, sounds nicer than just dropping rhymes about “Hundred Dollar Bills.” I am not saying pop music is changing the culture. That would imply the music industry has an iota of creativity and courage left in our post-Napster world. Rather, it is following the trends of what people want. And like kids who want to live as Paris or Lindsay, we want to listen and dream of being on that boat. The Bling Ring has an awesome soundtrack from Sleigh Bells to Lil Wayne. And it plays so cool when these white kids are rapping along drunk, as their car careens into oncoming traffic. Yet, nothing about The Bling Ring’s ideas is particularly new. Indeed, Harmony Korine put together an almost identical message about his own band of all-girl heroes. Coppola’s Marc shrugs that his newfound popularity, post-arrest, stems from people having a thing for Bonny & Clyde (even if 21st century Clyde is almost as rich as the banks he is knocking over), but Korine takes that to another level when he literally puts guns into his spoiled, entitled heroines’ hands.
 Spring Breakers is heavily criticized for being an exploitative film that trades on the smutty images of former Disney princesses in bikinis. But that’s only partially true….they actually mostly played Disney pop stars, as diamond crusted mics are a bigger fantasy for adolescences these days than tiaras. Yet, no matter how inane, this vehicle for Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens to behave badly still reaches for high intentions. The four mains girls (the fourth played by Korine’s 13 years younger wife, Rachel Korine) of the story desperately want to go on Spring Break in Florida. Like really, really desperately. As in that is the only goddamn thing they can talk about for the two-hour running time. Their voiceovers ache with longing for “Spring break, spring break, spring break.” So, when they realize that going to where MTV says all the cool kids are costs money, they knock over a fast food restaurant to finance the trip. They are Bonnie & Clyde all right, except they are college kids who are being held down the by a “system” that refuses to let them go to the party. The American dream in flip-flops and a G-string. Once in Florida, the girls embrace a debauched and hedonistic lifestyle that Gomez’s Super-Christian character (lamely named Faith) calls the most spiritual place on Earth. It is unclear whether Korine is condescending or celebrating these beer pong and cocaine-fueled pool parties, which resemble Roman era orgies more than Florida. But it is obvious that he views these children of Britney Spears music as fools detached from “good” culture. Repeatedly they sing to each other the poetry of Britney as if she is a musical legend on the levels of Beethoven, Mozart or even merely Lennon and McCartney. The film’s one truly great moment comes when James Franco’s Alien serenades the girls in a sunset rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” with all the reverence of the gospel. The girls tear up and dance along. In pink ski masks, DTF pants and AK-47s. It is deliriously surreal and probably brilliant.
 However, as entertaining as this subtext is, the movie is ultimately an empty-headed piece of exploitation. While it is almost impossible to deduce if Korine views it as a satire of youth culture or a love letter to his Spring Break obsession, far too often he likes using his camera to stare at his wife’s heaving breasts, as well as the other 20-something starlets who got duped into thinking they are making high art. Franco elevates the material to cult comedy gold when he is onscreen, but it is clear the entire project was reverse-engineered from Korine’s admitted concept genesis: 
The first image that came into my mind was of a girl on a white beach in a bikini during spring break with a pink ski mask holding a gun. It was like ‘How would that happen?’
 Still, despite the movie’s uncomfortably schoolgirl-enamored ambitions, it raises an interesting point about how pop greed culture is worshipped. Scarface’s Tony Montana, ANOTHER Oliver Stone creation, was meant to be a parody of the American Dream. But today, the American Dream has become a parody of him. As Spring Breakers’ single crowning achievement, Franco’s Alien is a tour de force performance of camp with a complicit believability. The character is a Daytona gangster with delusions of being Al Pacino from Scarface, a movie that he has playing in a loop on his TV. By the end, Alien proves to be nothing but a fronting putz who gets blown away five seconds into his one-man (and two-girl) raid on a rival drug dealer’s compound. But his death is treated with solemn mourning by his two bisexual soulmates who avenge his death by killing all the thugs in the house like they are in a video game, before returning to his warm corpse to give it a kiss.