Fame, we are taught from an early age, is the most important thing a person can strive for. It's why we encourage anyone with a semblance of talent to seek out the broadest possible audience. "You should be on TV," we say, as if that were the only just reward for demonstrable creative skill.
We post holiday photos on Facebook so that all of our 1,264 "friends" can envy us. We put up videos of our babies biting each other on YouTube in the hope they will "go viral" – a euphemism for being gawked at by the masses.
And we do so in the belief, of course, that fame will be accompanied by certain inalienable perks: infinite riches, sex on demand, plastinated beauty and an audience salivating with inexplicable delight at our every move, no matter how stupid, ungainly or dull.
But there's a problem with this equation. Fame simply isn't what it used to be. In the era of TMZ and Twitter, there is no such thing as the mystique of stardom any more. What we once innocently admired as lifestyles of the rich and famous have degenerated into obsessive image-management aided by obligatory revelations of DUIs, divorce, self-mutilation and rehab.
And Hollywood, true to form, is wallowing in self-pity. Celebrities want our sympathy and they're willing to burst our bubble to prove it. Earlier this year, Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck's mockumentary, I'm Still Here, pulled back the curtain on the kind of devouring, narcissistic personal hell that has afflicted movie stars since the advent of the studio system.
Sofia Coppola's new film, Somewhere, takes it to a whole new level. In it, Stephen Dorff plays a disaffected Hollywood leading man who drifts around his suite at the Chateau Marmont hotel, ordering in strippers, indulging in random sex, and generally having no idea where, what or who he's meant to be next. His chiselled blankness is as charismatic as it is disturbing – a metaphor for the allure of Hollywood itself, a place where illusion is everything.
According to U.S. cultural critic Cintra Wilson, author of the seminal 1999 riposte A Massive Swelling; Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations, the devaluation of celebrity spread with the democratization of fame (and took off big-time with reality TV and YouTube) and culminated in bald Britney hitting a paparazzo's car with a baseball bat. "That, for me, was the death gong signalling the collapse of fame as we once knew it," she told me in an interview this week. "Stardom sucked all the way up into itself and vanished backward into a massive black hole."
A contributor to The New York Times, Wilson these days writes mostly about fashion and politics because she finds celebrity culture "so utterly nauseating and worthless, it isn't even an effective distraction." But she does add, interestingly, that while she once characterized fame as a disease, today she sees it as more like a junk bond. "Celebrities are like toxic stocks that are meant to be pumped and dumped in remarkably short periods of time – the spectacle of celebrity toxicity is worth more than the individual stars themselves."
Ignore the hype on Entourage and Lady Gaga's stream of deranged tweets. Instead – in a week when Zsa Zsa Gabor, the godmother of Hollywood glamour, waits in hospital to have her leg amputated to prevent the spread of gangrene – consider the degenerative effects of being famous. It is, above all else, a dementing influence on the human body and spirit; a perennial adolescence governed by the denigrating whims of the lowest common denominator.
Consider the young brides of Famenstein: Heidi Montag, Lindsay Lohan and, most recently, Amber Portwood, the star of MTV's Teen Mom, currently facing felony charges for assaulting her now-ex-fiancé as the cameras rolled.
In 1999, Wilson wrote presciently that "Fame is a perverse deformity, an ego-swelling as ludicrous as an extra sex organ, and the people that have it, for a huge part, are willfully and deliberately screwed up past the point of ever having anything sweet or human or normal about themselves again."
At the time, her words were surprising, even controversial. But in 2011, you'd have to reside under a rock to believe that a celebrated existence is a truly happy one. Somewhere isn't just a film about the banality of celebrity. It's about what's lost when celebrity comes home to roost. Fame – both the culture it has engendered, and the experience itself – saps our humanity and intelligence, making us less patient, less thoughtful; in short, less good. It is corrosive, character-eroding and, as the digital era has shown us, contagious as a deadly superbug.
As for all you kidults who still long to see your name in lights? Wilson has some well-thought-out advice: Forget musical-theatre camp. Become an assassin. "Celebrity today is mostly about disgrace, porn and death worship," she says, "which is fine, if that's what mows your lawn as entertainment."
Note the readers: The text has been changed to incorporate the following corrections: Cintra Wilson is a writer for the New York Times; she has not said that that becoming a call girl is a route to fame.