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To the Max

The Truth of the Bling Ring Eludes Even Its Ringleader in New Documentary

Rachel Lee tells her own version of the glitzy Hollywood robberies, but how well does she know her own teenage motivations?
  • Rachel Lee in The RIngleader: The Case of the Bling Ring (Photo: HBO)
    Rachel Lee in The RIngleader: The Case of the Bling Ring (Photo: HBO)

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    It was only a matter of time before pop culture got to the business of relitigating the Bling Ring case. The story of the Southern California teens who broke into the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Audrina Patridge, and Lindsay Lohan, stealing millions of dollars in jewelry, clothes, and other goods, has all the ingredients of recently re-examined narratives surrounding Britney Spears, Pamela Anderson, and Monica Lewinsky: celebrity culture, a media apparatus intent on rubbernecking, and a judgmental public.

    What sets the Bling Ring teens apart from the Britneys and Pams of 2000s lore is evident in this very sentence: you know the names of the latter three. Unless you were uncommonly well versed in the Bling Ring case, the names of the perpetrators (with the exception of Alexis Neiers, whose viral fame sets her apart from her pilfering contemporaries) were never in the headlines.

    Erin Lee Carr's documentary The Ringleader: The Case of The Bling Ring attempts to let one of those perpetrators, Rachel Lee, tell her own story. Lee, who was characterized in stories about the Bling Ring as the group's "ringleader," was one of the few Bling Ring bandits to serve prison time, and her four-year sentence was by far the longest. Sofia Coppola's 2013 film The Bling Ring portrayed Lee as an affectless and amoral larcenist, obsessed with celebrities and reality TV. If anyone from this infamous group was ripe for a "You're Wrong About"-style redemption narrative, it would be Lee. She's been out of the spotlight since her sentencing and she's granted no interviews; "she's an enigma," says Los Angeles Times reporter Amy Kaufman.

    But rather than illuminate any kind of "real" truth behind the stories you've heard, Carr's interviews with Lee reveal her as an exceptionally unreliable narrator. Her recollections of the events leading up to and during the robberies — and especially about her friendship with Nick Prugo, the other central figure in the Ring — sound like those of someone who wasn’t in the thick of it. At one point, Lee outright says she can't tell if the things she remembers are the truth or a lie.

    Offscreen, Carr constantly challenges Lee to be more honest in her responses. Lee initially says the robberies made her feel stressed, then when Carr pushes back, she admits she felt exhilarated. She says the one thing she never did was sell stolen goods… until Carr brings up a documented instance of her selling stolen goods, to which Lee essentially says, "Okay, that one time." Towards the end of the doc, Lee arrives at the outrageously squishy proclamation that, when it comes to her story and the stories of the other Bling Ring members, "Every single one of our truths is true to thyself." Put it on a mug.

    You'd think this kind of unreliability in the central interview subject would be a detriment to The Ringleader, and perhaps it is to the documentary Carr intended to make, but Lee's flakiness reveals what has always been the most compelling aspect of the Bling Ring: that we don't — or can't ever — know why they did it. In lieu of Lee giving a definitive and trustworthy answer to that question, Carr opens the floor to a gallery of reporters, prosecutors, and one disgruntled content creator to tell the story as they see it.

    The Bling Ring story is one steeped in the kind of gaudy aughts ephemera that should make everyone cringe (the film opens with an AIM chat window and Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" playing in the background). The earliest days of social media, the dawn of "celebreality" TV shows, and the changing tone of celebrity journalism in the heyday of TMZ all converged to create a culture that was aggressively obsessed with accessible celebrities. Digital onlookers could follow along with the social calendars of L.A. party girls like Paris, Lindsay, and Kim Kardashian. They could get a tour of their ostentatious homes and expansive closets on Cribs, or frequent the same mid-level haunts like Les Deux that got shout-outs on The Hills. Websites like Celebrity Address Aerials showed you where these young, famous-for-being-famous people all lived.

    The accessibility and desirability of this brand of celebrity culture is certainly one motivating factor for the robberies. It's the one proffered by Sofia Coppola in The Bling Ring — the idea that these were a bunch of wannabe teens who idolized Paris and Lindsay so much that they couldn't resist helping themselves to their stuff. This is more or less the Amy Kaufman perspective in the documentary. Kaufman knows of what she speaks; she says she moved to Los Angeles in part because of The Hills; she recites the entire Alexis Neiers/Nancy Jo Sales phone call scene from Pretty Wild from memory. Of course this is a story about celebrity.

    Or maybe it's a story about outcasts from Calabasas who found thrills and a measure of control in a world where they were relatively powerless by stealing from the rich and famous. That's the angle that journalist Allen Salkin takes in his talking-head segments. Salkin, like Rachel Lee and Nick Prugo, grew up in Calabasas, the well-off enclave in the San Fernando Valley where, per Rachel, the cheapest car anyone ever saw was a Jetta. Both Rachel and Nick were expelled from Calabasas High School (Rachel for stealing a pair of Ugg boots) and formed a friendship that she compared to "Bonnie and Clyde."

    Together, they seemed to bring out the most extreme in each other, getting into drugs like Xanax and coke, driving around town pointing toy guns (painted black) at various people. (The latter anecdote comes from Rachel, so it may or may not be true.) Rachel had faced discrimination in Calabasas for being Korean, and Nick for his assumed queer sexuality. Salkin characterizes the pair as "two kids outside the mainstream” and offers the explanation that "stealing can be a compulsive behavior, like an eating disorder."

    Rachel and Nick's friendship and its role in the Bling Ring remains the most fascinating and perhaps unknowable aspect of the story. Rachel describes the two as being inseparable, and not necessarily in a good way. "Between me and Nick, there was a darkness," she says, and Carr punctuates this with old phone videos of the two teens looking as malevolent as two kids from the Valley can look. There is something genuinely terrifying about the sight of aughts teens wearing floppy beanies and swoopy bangs, flashing deuces at the camera. From outside the friendship, Rachel and Nick are alternately described as being the bad influence of the pair. Which one of them wouldn't have gotten mixed up in the robberies without the other one's influence remains an open question.

    Nick is certainly more of a chaotic and even sinister figure in Rachel's telling of the tale. It's a marked contrast to Coppola's film, which puts Nick at the center, painting him as a naive kid, just beginning to explore his queerness, who forms attachments to people like Rachel and Alexis, and for whom the robberies spin out of control. Coppola even depicts Nick turning against his former friends and testifying for the prosecution as sympathetic. Obviously, Rachel's side of the story treats Nick differently, but other perspectives also put Nick in a bad light. Eden Hilton was a high-school friend of Nick's, from whose home Nick allegedly stole $28,000 in cash. In perhaps a nod to the food-chain nature of American celebrity, Eden’s antipathy towards Nick has blossomed into a social-media side hustle of sorts, as Eden has attempted to parlay his little chapter of the Bling Ring story into viral fame on TikTok.

    If you ask the district attorneys, the Bling Ring's motivations were never that complicated. To them, Rachel, Nick, Alexis, and the rest were a bunch of kids taking stuff that didn't belong to them. "I think that they wanted stuff that they couldn't afford," offers Sarika Kim, an attorney who prosecuted the case, "and they weren't willing to work hard for it." Deputy DA Christine Kee notes the virtue in Rachel accepting the prison sentence she deserved and "took it like a man."

    Those are some awfully boomer takes on the material, but the truth of the matter is, it's just as good an explanation as any. Were Rachel and Nick motivated by their outsider status to take a bite out of the wealthy cultural hegemony that oppressed them? Were their minds clouded by Xanax and Adderall? Were they adrift without the guiding influence of their overly permissive or absent parents? Was it Kim Kardashian's episode of Cribs or a Paris Hilton red-carpet photo that pushed their envy past the breaking point?

    The truth is it could be any of these things or none of them. The ultimate fascination with The Bling Ring is that it fits so many narratives, from our cultural obsessions with wealth and fame, which we indulge and demonize in equal measure, to our fears over what social media and drugs are doing to young people. And because we're talking about teenagers — with their inscrutable motives, fickle attitudes, and unformed psyches — we're all free to write our own narratives. That might not be the most satisfying conclusion to a documentary, but it’s perhaps the most fittingly ephemeral conclusion to a story involving Ugg boots and Paris Hilton.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: HBO, Max, The Ringleader: The Case of the Bling Ring, Erin Lee Carr, Nick Prugo, Paris Hilton, Rachel Lee