As a teacher, I often glimpse hope for the future in the zeal of an ambitious student, one whose mind is sharp and whose conscience is sharper.

But I often envision a very different future, one that has come to be ruled by others — those students who, today, do the bare minimum of the work assigned to them, who demonstrate no capacity for critical thinking, and who live with such a sense of entitlement that they consider it an injustice if they are given less than an ‘A’ for unimaginative plagiarism. These are often the students who have been “provided for” their whole lives, and who thus have little or no experience with the kinds of suffering that might kindle that most essential of human traits: empathy. They sometimes act without thinking — but, more importantly, they act without caring about the consequences of their actions. And any inconvenience they encounter is thus mistranslated as injustice. Due to their substantial material advantages, these young people will have an easier time finding their way into seats of power. In my darker moments, that reality weighs on my mind.

So Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring plays for me like a horror film.

Nicki (Emma Watson) looks to Rebecca (Katie Chang), the Bling-ringleader, as they revel in the highs of their crime spree. (Image from A24 trailer for The Bling Ring.)

Released in 2013, this film about young women who beg, borrow, and steal their way into the Hollywood high life never drew me out to theaters in spite of my admiration for Coppola’s previous films. It was more a matter of subject than style. I love Coppola’s sensuality, her impressionistic imagery, her empathetic view of lonely young women in contexts dominated by men and corrupted by excess. In spite of the cultural and artistic prominence of her father Francis Ford Coppola and her family, many of whom are household names of Hollywood royalty, she has found her own voice, her own distinctive style, and it is decidedly more poetic and intuitive than her father’s. Whether I’m watching the lonely celebrity newlywed in Lost in Translation, the lonely celebrity daughter in Somewhere, the lonely and tragic historical figure in Marie Antoinette, or the imprisoned daughters of a controlling father in The Virgin Suicides, I always feel that I’m receiving a personal and heartfelt testimony, a self-effacing self-portrait, an honest appeal from the daughter of a Hollywood godfather. But, more importantly, Coppola’s films never feel preachy: she clearly loves her characters, and the honesty and affection in her portraiture inspires me to love them too.

Still, the trailer for The Bling Ring made it seem shallow, heavy-handed, even preachy in its satire. What’s more, it pushed my buttons. I was a kid who steered clear of materialistic classmates, those who valued wealth over wisdom, sex over relationship, and sensation over substance. That isn’t a self-righteous boast: Much of my aversion to those crowds came from how much I coveted their popularity and comparative wealth. But it’s also true that they just disturbed me — they were so nonchalant in the cruelty and superficiality that characterized so many bullies and villains in the stories that influenced me growing up. So a movie about a clique of teens who make role models of glamorous and vacuous starlets like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Megan Fox didn’t appeal to me.

But as Coppola’s films have proven to have lasting power for me, rewarding repeated viewings, I eventually decided that I needed to pick up the missing piece. Now I have — and I’m glad I did.

Rebecca and Marc (Israel Broussard) take a joy ride, intoxicated by privilege and stolen goods. (Image from A24 trailer for The Bling Ring.)

I’ve never read the story by Nancy Jo Sales in Vanity Fair on which this film is based. I’m unsurprised, though horrified, to learn that, between 2008 and 2009, five high school students from wealthy Los Angeles families threw themselves into lives of clumsy crime, driven by a zeal to live like the super-rich. They broke into celebrity homes and made off with several million dollars in fashion and accessories, and then brazenly flaunted what they took in the company of their admiring peers.

In the film’s depiction of their daring and their dashes for the door — often presented as surveillance video footage — these thieves perfect the art of exploiting their parents’ detachment and obliviousness, living double lives as indifferent high-school students by day and as partygoers by night, constantly striving to sustain a state of intoxication as dangerous as their perpetual state of denial. By alcohol, by drugs, and by materialism they cannot afford, they catapult themselves compulsively into the highs of lies, getting away with as much as they can until they crash their stolen cars.

They could easily have been played for big laughs. They could have become easy targets for those of us who shake our heads self-righteously at such shenanigans. But through Coppola’s lens, these young rebels without a meaningful cause — played by Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Clare Julien, Taisa Farmiga, and, in the film’s most talked-about turn, Emma “Hermione” Watson — are portrayed thoughtfully, even compassionately, as if the director, quite well-acquainted with privilege herself, is saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Or, perhaps, “There, in spite of the grace of God, I have gone — I confess it.”

Be sure your sins will find you out… whether by social media or surveillance video. (Image from A24 trailer for The Bling Ring.)

It’s to Coppola’s credit that audiences are unable to avoid seeing the emptiness — even the lunacy — in the “religion” of the families in which these young people grow up. The only things here more dismaying than the seeming soullessness of these young Bling Ringers as they rob the rich to feed the bottomless pit of their egos is the fact that their elders are as clueless as they are, and that the wealthy and glamorous targets of their thievery are every bit as vacuous and self-worshipping as the wannabes. Nicki’s mother Laurie, played perfectly by Leslie Mann, preaches a hybrid of the prosperity-gospel, new-age hocus pocus, and surface-level social justice concerns. And it amounts to convictions as surface-level as a designer-label t-shirt, as loosely worn as a slogan-bracelet made in China, and just as disposable. With no example of character or integrity to follow, these kids embrace and distort their parents’ vocabularies into flimsy defenses and excuses for everything they do. They’re made of the superficial media they’ve absorbed.The Church of Whatever Makes You Feel Good goes on pronouncing everyone absolved and righteous. And Capitalism goes on rewarding and exalting them. 

The most frightening of the bunch is Nicki (Emma Watson), a girl I swear I remember from my high school days, one who could speak earnestly into a camera about real-world problems and then, like a beauty-pageant queen, turn on a dime and play pop-culture princess to the applause of ogling male teachers, the attention of the most popular jocks, and the ecstatic enthusiasm of her princess-obsessed mother. It’s hard to see what compels Nicki to make a sex-tape celebrity her role model; it’s not fame she’s after. It has more to do with an insatiable ego, the drive to see herself mirrored back on every platform — a goddess, adorned in the trendiest of everything. 

Drunk on mirrors, Nicki (Emma Watson) worships at the altar of her accessorized, idealized self. (Image from A24 trailer for The Bling Ring.)

Watching The Bling Ring in 2020, I read it very differently than I might have several years ago. How prescient of Coppola to film an origin-story account of recent and upcoming White House Press Secretaries or other Trump-ish cronies. You don’t need qualifications — you just…

  • sped substantial time in pre-camera make-up;
  • revel in privileges you haven’t earned and that you probably stole;
  • boast about yourself and your non-existent plans, and make unsubstantiated claims about your charitable instincts;
  • lie through your teeth, believing that the only thing that matters is the escaping of consequences;
  • change the subject when confronted, shift blame, and deny responsibility at every turn;
  • when you’re caught, turn the tables and paint yourself as the victim, reframing your crimes as experiences you’ve suffered rather than suffering you’ve caused for others;
  • embrace a profit-driven version of religion that has the vocabulary of Christ in it but no evidence of love or sacrifice; and
  • exploit every on-camera moment to direct the audience toward the URLs of your ego.

I found that The Bling Ring reminded me above all of a film that has come out since then: Hustlers. However, it does so by contrast rather than similarity. Unlike Hustlers, it doesn’t treat its con-artists as heroes for beating monsters at their own game, or give them big moments to pronounce righteous judgment on their own culture. Marc, Rebecca, Chloe, and the gang are always in action, so lost in their “Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall” enchantment, they can’t wake up. And the thing is, not much of their kamikaze behavior is their fault; it’s behavior they’ve learned from screens, the most prominent, reliable, and ever-present influence in their lives. (And yes, that’s an indictment of their parents who, to all appearances, are setting the worst kind of example.) I suspect their criminal compulsions have less to do with an appetite for destruction and more to do with an appetite for love: They’re starving for it, hey don’t know what it is or how to begin looking for it. So they go running after counterfeit versions of love — that insufficient substitute called fame.

Dirty money for stolen goods — wealth and fame become the justification for everything in world of conscience-free capitalism. (Image from A24 trailer for The Bling Ring.)

We’re living now in the sadder, scarier sequel to the real-life events that inspired Coppola’s film. Those news outlets with any integrity left deliver daily surveillance video as Nicki and company spend and snort what’s left of our country’s soul and savings; the pirates that have seized and pillaged the halls of our democracy are too intoxicated to see the collapse that is already well underway, too vain to realize that there will be no negotiating their way out of the coming judgment.

At the end of watching this, I feel (and probably look) exactly like Sheriff Bell at the end of No Country for Old Men. I see that there’s no stopping the consequences of so much recklessness indulgence from coming. That flood is coming. And there’s no stopping it from taking with it those of us who recognize the evils being committed. So, like poor, haggard, world-weary Sheriff Bell, we have to see our hope beyond the human sphere.