$ellebrity is a documentary about the history and current state of paparazzi culture from the perspective of someone who’s a major player in that world. The all-access pass this affords viewers on the outside looking in turns out to be a double-edged sword, limited in what it wants to say about America’s obsession with celebrity, but still offering some genuine food for thought. Director Kevin Mazur, who’s a celebrity photographer, is quick to distance himself from the “stalkerazzi” that constitutes one of his film’s main targets. Unlike the paparazzi, as he makes sure to remind us on camera, Mazur works with celebrities in order to photograph them, which likely accounts for the access he’s able to get to the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Elton John, and others, all of whom are more than willing to share their paparazzi-related horror stories. But $ellebrity aims to be more than an anti-paparazzi tract; it also wants to elucidate the role these photographers play in a whole complex web of celebrity obsession in America, which Mazur carefully lays out with the aid of slick, flashy graphics echoing the tabloid style it means to critique. Most provocative of all, Mazur isn’t afraid to implicate the public, suggesting that, even if some of us cluck our tongues and feel superior to the vulture-like paparazzi photographers, by consuming this celebrity gossip through outlets like US Weekly and TMZ, we’re nevertheless complicit in this widespread obsession with the daily lives of celebrities, one that has only gotten more pronounced over the past few decades.
That last point may have struck a deeper chord if it didn’t seem so evident throughout the film that Mazur was pontificating from a blinkered perspective; the “public” that he’s ostensibly addressing is barely glimpsed in $ellebrity except in ways that could be considered condescending (think of Michael Moore’s use of Britney Spears in Fahrenheit 9/11, except reversed in its implications). And yet, there are moments where Mazur evinces a more near-dialectical intelligence to at least certain details of his grand subject. Toward the end of the film, when he poses the question of whether this kind of celebrity gossip-mongering could be considered legitimate journalism, he juxtaposes the vehement “no” responses offered by the likes of Salma Hayek and Elton John with the more circumspect opinions of academics and legal advisers, indicating that Mazur is willing to allow for a bit of nuanced ambiguity, at least on some of the finer points. Mazur’s embedded point of view means that $ellebrity sometimes comes off as little more than a feature-length trashing of colleagues who he feels are giving his profession a bad name; nevertheless, there’s a certain value in the film’s insistence that we at least be aware of the roles we all play in perpetuating an image-driven environment in which we all are in danger of forgetting that, like it or not, celebrities are human beings too.