The American Meme: 15 minutes of thoroughly degraded fame

Reality TV: ‘I play the lowest-common denominator’ says one influencer, accurately

On the walls of Paris Hilton's mansion, among the framed magazine covers and dog paintings, are two striking pieces of artwork that encapsulate her celebrity : a portrait of the star made up of tiny individual photos of her face and a Terry Richardson piece, a black-and-white shot of the paparazzi clamouring for a photo, in which the cameras whirr and click and flash into life just like the real ones. Paris hears these noises even in her sleep. It was what she dreamed of and now she's stuck with it. The original reality star was part of the new breed of young Hollywood, famous for being famous, and now she's being held up as the originator of the ever-multiplying tribe of Instagram influencers, the thoroughly modern stars who make up The American Meme.

The Netflix documentary attempts to pinpoint the appeal of these seven-second wonders and how they have come to represent a new kind of celebrity, a new way of being famous, a generation's growing obsession with being validated, being seen by their peers and the wider world, exposing everything for some love and attention, however momentary.

"What's wrong with attention?" model and actor Emily Ratajkowski purrs into the camera. The 27-year-old crash-landed into the pop-culture consciousness with her very naked, cheeky performance in Robin Thicke's controversial Blurred Lines video. The Youtube views made her and she shrewdly and quickly decided to capitalise through her Instagram account, offering the curious the opportunity to step into her world of private jets, parties, outdoor showering and generally living the beautiful life of the genetically blessed. Ratajkowski praises the ability to control her own image, grateful for not being under the cosh of a publicist or a team like the silent supermodels of the 1990s. These internet stars are their own hype-men, pushing themselves into a closed industry, managing to parlay a music video, a Vine prank, a viral video into a career.

It’s not about longevity. There is no lasting value to this type of celebrity. It’s a mayfly existence, a popularity contest where copycats and other pranksters are nipping at your heels within seconds. The comedic actor and Vine star Brittany Furlan sets up an elaborate parody of the Beyoncé pregnancy announcement photo with an exaggerated burrito belly in place of a baby bump gaining 2,000 likes within five minutes of uploading the photoshoot to Instagram, only to discover that reigning internet comedy kingpin The Fat Jewish has had the same idea with even greater success.


Shaky ground

These influencers exist on shaky ground. They’re not creating anything truly unique that can’t be duplicated, and they are ultra-aware that they can be replaced in the public’s affection by a dancing, yodelling cat within minutes. They live fast and repent later for their shocking content. The head-spinning speed of this lifestyle propels themselves into making controversial moves, dashing off offensive material and taking part in risque acts just to secure more likes.

"No one cares about you" party boy photographer and self-proclaimed Slut Whisperer Kirill Bichutsky moans as he stands in another anonymous hotel bathroom gazing at his drink-bloated face in the mirror. He may be savvy about his limited appeal, but he doesn't seem to understand that he is not offering anything other than bacchanalian idiocy writ large. There is nothing permanent about this, even though the internet lives for ever. He is just a blur of a memory of a night out to his "fans". "I play the lowest-common denominator" he says in a moment of self-awareness. Spraying Champagne over a college girl's cleavage has an expiration date but Kirill doesn't seem to have thought about his escape plan.

At least the Josh Ostrovsky (The Fat Jewish) has his successful White Girl Rosé brand and his Madonna advertising money to keep him in beard oil once his profession of passing off other people's jokes as his own dries up. The comedian/mogul shrugs off accusations of stealing, saying the old guard don't understand the democratising nature of the internet. The generation that grew up ripping songs from Limewire don't place any value on intellectual property. Everything is copy and nobody owns anything in this cannibalised marketplace.

The future is a faraway place for most of these stars, but as ever Paris Hilton is one step ahead, thinking of the next way to secure her permanence – by cloning herself. As she stands in a latex catsuit with technicians busy creating her avatar, she thinks about how she can sit at home and send her virtual self out to appearances and events, the artifice of the empty American dream reaching its natural conclusion.