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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

As If! Hollywood’s View of Its Kids Is Not Flattering

As If! Hollywood’s View of Its Kids Is Not Flattering


Contributing Reporter

The children of the wealthy in Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and the rest of L.A. are shallow, jaded hedonists obsessed with perpetuating their status.

That at least, is the homegrown image created by Hollywood and sent out to the rest of the world.

Such a portrayal of rich kids is nothing new. Populist filmmakers have always found a place for the rich next to the villains and the vapid. But Hollywood seems to have a particularly bitter place in its heart for its children.

As far back as 1945, when Michael Curtiz dissected L.A. wealth and family in “Mildred Pierce,” the children of L.A.’s successful were portrayed as venal and self-involved. In the intervening decades, little has changed.

By the mid ’70s, Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo” featured Carrie Fisher as the Hollywood Hills daughter intent on inserting herself in her unfaithful mother’s love life by luring her hairdresser, played by Warren Beatty, to bed.

Said one reviewer: “That might be the last time in an American movie that a girl has so snidely but so unhappily avenged herself against her mother.”

There have been more benign attempts to show how life is lived among the rich kids of L.A. but even they have an edge to them.

In Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film “Clueless,” based on the Jane Austen novel “Emma,” Alicia Silverstone starred as the pampered Beverly Hills princess who sets out to make her world right by brokering the relationship between two teachers (on the assumption that the happy teachers would give her better grades). She also found time to make the new girl in school popular and discover a little romance of her own all while managing to get a little shopping in.

These kids have the kinds of concerns best summed up by the response to “What’d you do in school today?”

“Broke in my purple clogs.”

Poor relations

That shallowness reflected a tone set in earlier attempts at humor.

Director Jeff Kanew’s 1989 film “Troop Beverly Hills” followed the flighty Shelley Long in her organization of a Girl Scout-like troop of the neglected and pampered daughters of the wealthy. Their values were so stilted that they earned badges for pricing jewelry.

The ditz factor resonated at the box office even when it masked a subtler set of smarts.

In “Legally Blonde” (2001), L.A. sorority glamour queen Reese Witherspoon is left to languish on Greek Row by her no-goodnik blue-blooded boyfriend, only to take her flounce, shoes and accessories to Harvard Law School.

“Most mainstream Hollywood movies these days deal more with stereotypes and archetypes than with real human beings,” says film critic Leonard Maltin. “I mean, I just won’t believe that every attractive high school kid is, by definition, a venal, vindictive bitch. On the other hand, there are probably just enough of them that we buy into the stereotype.”

Maltin, who co-hosts TV’s “Hot Ticket,” doesn’t believe L.A. comes off worse in this stereotyping than any other place where there are teens and money.

Perhaps, but an overriding theme of many of these films is that the children of the rich have little ability to connect and interact with those less well-off.

Paul Mazursky’s 1986 film, “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” dropped a homeless Nick Nolte into Richard Dreyfuss’ home, where his teenaged daughter (along with his wife and housekeeper) enlisted Nolte’s character for all sorts of counseling.

One effort at seeing things from the other side was “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” a 1998 film by Tamara Jenkins in which the struggling Abromowitz family scratches to stay on the fringes of 90210 to remain in the vaunted Beverly Hills school district.

Fantasy factor

Heckerling is quick to point out that “Clueless” was pure fantasy. “It had more to do with Fred Astaire movies,” she says, “than any reality.”

Heckerling’s daughter, Molly, herself a student at Beverly Hills High, has another take:

“‘Clueless’ was about how the rich respond to reality,” she said. “In the end, (her) sense of responsibility compelled her to do good things. She herself had to realize that she couldn’t just whistle and hum her way through life.”

The success of “Clueless” it booked more than $55 million in domestic box office spurred a number of other films that made the stereotype a bit less generous.

“She’s All That,” a 1999 retelling of Pygmalion for pre-teens, offered proof that brats in Beverly Hills have more money, hipper outfits and glitzier parties than kids elsewhere.

The next year, “Whatever it Takes,” a film based on “Cyrano de Bergerac” had characters painted with a more kindly brush. The villain, Ashley, is an arrogant snob who, as reviewer Roger Ebert says, “gets her comeuppance in one of those cruel scenes reserved for stuck-up high school sexpots.”

A bleaker view was taken in the 2000 release of writer/director Catherine Jelski’s “Young Unknowns,” which followed the lives of a handful of Hollywood Hills twenty-somethings through a weekend binge on drugs and angst.

On television, these portrayals hit more homes and for a longer period than their filmic counterparts.

“Beverly Hills 90210” began life in 1990 as an earnest teen drama but devolved, after a decade’s worth of seasons, into high fantasy. What else can you say about a show in which a small coterie of spectacularly attractive and wealthy kids maintains the same clique, frequents the same restaurant, and lives in the same house from high school straight into their “Melrose Place” years?

But because there is so much concentrated wealth in Los Angeles and because the film and television industries generate so much content here, it’s no wonder local kids have started to play a greater role in peopling films.

Robin Leach, who has made a career of following the impossibly wealthy, defends these kids.

“The sons and daughters of rich, successful stars are the hardest working kids in Hollywood,” he says. “They may live in magnificent mansions, have wondrous wardrobes and awesome allowances, but to be honest, they are hardworking kids trying to rise above even the high standards their reputations set.”

The impact of these films on the perceptions of L.A.’s wealthy children is hard to gauge.

“I don’t know what effect these films have,” says Maltin. “When a film is built on stereotypes, it only reinforces what we already think. It doesn’t illuminate anything. I think that button-pushing, so-called ‘feel good’ approach to filmmaking doesn’t give anybody real deep down satisfaction, let alone broadening their feelings about the world around them.”

Maltin also points out that the rich have always been a target, it’s just that the target has moved.

“When they did it in the ’30s,” he says, “they were usually making fun of the convention. In ‘My Man Godfrey,’ to cite one classic example, the rich people are all idiots, and of course that was tremendously appealing to audiences of the Great Depression.”

Now, however, the factors at play may have more to do with filmmaking than politics.

“I think this is indicative of the fact that we see stereotypes rather than characters in so many Hollywood movies now,” says Maltin.

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