Witness to the Bling Ring: Netflix Is Releasing a Limited Series of the True Story I Covered

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The sight of Paris Hilton’s jewelry covering the surface of a plain, wooden kitchen table was staggering. Diamond bracelets. Bangles. Expensive watches. Cocktail rings. Pearls. This was just some of the stuff the LAPD had recovered when they raided the homes of the teens and 20-somethings we’d later come to know as the Bling Ring. It was 2009, and I was a 25-year-old correspondent for a cable TV network, crouched on the ground in front of police headquarters, scribbling notes as Detective Brett Goodkin shared pictures and descriptions of the loot with me and the three or four dozen other journalists assembled.

It wasn’t surprising to me when, fewer than five years later, I found myself watching the story unfold again on the big screen in Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring.” The fascination was already at a fever pitch in the fall of 2009. The group was eventually linked to break-ins at the homes of Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, and Lindsay Lohan, to name a few. TMZ was posting constant updates, Vanity Fair was investigating a big, splashy story on the crimes, and the teenage burglar bunch was a regular topic of cocktail-party conversation in LA. It was simple to track down the Bling Ring kids via social media in the early stages of the investigation, and – probably to his detriment – key suspect Nick Prugo had a used car salesman of an attorney who was a quick and easy source of information. Clearly it was questionable information, but it was something to go on, nonetheless. Detective Goodkin was talkative and quick to pick up the phone. In fact, his open-book approach had him in hot water; he was paid more than $25,000 for consulting on the movie and appearing in a cameo role, as an officer who arrests Emma Watson’s character, without asking for permission from his higher-ups.

For me, the Bling Ring story was a perfect Los Angeles tale. Nevermind that these kids lived in the suburbs of Calabasas, just an hour’s drive in traffic from the Hollywood homes they robbed. They may as well have been from Boise, ID, like me. They were total outsiders who just happened to be in close proximity.

Now, Netflix is turning the true-crime story into a limited series titled “The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist.” According to the show’s synopsis, “the docuseries shows what can happen when a fame-and-celebrity-obsessed culture meets the rise of social media and spins wildly out of control.” It will feature interviews with Alexis Haines (Neiers), Nick Norgo (Prugo), Andrea Arlington-Dunne, Gabrielle Hames, Audrina Patridge, and Perez Hilton, and is set to premiere on Sept. 21.

Read more about the true story ahead.

When the Bling Ring struck, the recession was still in its most serious throes, and these kids living on the periphery set out to take what was not theirs. It was unbelievably easy. They jumped fences, snuck in through unlocked doors, or – in the case of Hilton – simply lifted up a doormat to find a spare key helpfully lodged underneath.

There was something almost anarchistic behind their attacks, but they didn’t seem angry about Hilton or Bloom or Lohan’s wealth, or seem like they were trying to reclaim it for the common man; they just wanted to live inside that kind of life. If you could wear Hilton’s dress, why couldn’t you be her? In a world full of people famous for being famous, wouldn’t the trappings themselves make you a celebrity in your own right?

Coppola herself may not have grown up mostly in LA or be a teenager anymore, but as a young person who closely followed the Bling Ring case, her portrait of youth in the movie felt authentic and right. She cast mostly unknown teens (Katie Chang and Israel Broussard among them) to fill the roles of the robbers, so while their performances sometimes felt slightly stilted and self-conscious, those moments also served their roles as kids trying to seem more sophisticated than they really are.

Some of the most frequent complaints lobbed at Coppola’s filmmaking have to do with a lack of substance; “Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere” were particular targets for that critique. But if Coppola makes movies that are obsessed with veneer and tone, this story lent itself perfectly to that. It’s tailor-made to her talent for detail, penchant for visual excess, and ease with letting things beyond the surface hum with energy, even if they never break through. For these kids, life was surface, existence was veneer, image was reality. If they looked the part, they would be the part. Coppola knew that, so she let the story unfold plainly, like so many diamond baubles laid out on a kitchen table. It’s up to the audience to feel the anxiety and moral nagging that most of the characters simply don’t.

I laughed in the opening scene of “The Bling Ring,” when Watson recites a speech ripped straight from the lips of one of the real-life burglars, Haines. “I’m a firm believer in karma,” Watson drones as her character, Nikki, in a voice caked with Valley Girl vocal fry and melodrama. “And I think this situation was a huge learning lesson for me, to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I wanna lead a country one day, for all I know.”

Despite the cartoonish-ness, this was a real speech given by Haines – albeit not on the courthouse steps. But she gave plenty of similar statements there, too. I was among the throng of reporters who dutifully captured her words on notepads and through camera lenses, stifling laughs, looking on in wonder at the lip-glossed 19-year-old in patent-leather heels in a miniskirt, stunned and, frankly, sort of scared by her lack of self-awareness.

As I watched “The Bling Ring,” I wondered how unreal or exaggerated Watson’s monologue seemed to most moviegoers. But like the rest of the strange facts about the Bling Ring’s story the movie contains, that was pretty much exactly how it unfolded.

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