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THIS IS PARIS (2020) review

September 13, 2020


produced by: Eli Holzman and Aaron Saidman
directed by: Alexandra Dean
rated: not rated
runtime: 110 min.
U.S. release date: September 14, 2020 (YouTube Originals)


Director Alexandra Dean has accomplished something I never thought possible. She not only got me to watch a documentary on Paris Hilton, but I left “This is Paris” with an understanding of Hilton and even found myself conjuring up a certain amount of empathy for her. I’ve had no interest in Hilton, nor did I have any curiosity as to what she’s been up to lately, but since Dean’s last documentary “Bombshell”, managed to reveal unique and unknown chapters in the life of actress Hedy Lamarr, I felt compelled to give this doc a chance. Sure enough, what Dean uncovers here about Hilton is quite unsettling and eye-opening, giving insight and context to how the world has perceived her.

Granted, there have been other documentaries on Hilton in the past, she even co-wrote a book called Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose, released in 2004, but it’s doubtful any other film has followed her this closely and covered such traumatic events from her childhood that has clearly shaped who she is today.

Some may not be aware that Hilton is the great-granddaughter of Conrad Hilton, the founder of Hilton Hotels. She and her younger sister, Nicky (and their two brothers) were raised by Richard and Kathy Hilton in New York City and Beverly Hills, California. She started modeling in her teens, much to the chagrin of her mother (who was a child actor and model herself) and would become well known for her late-night “party girl” persona in the Big Apple, making her a regular target for paparazzi and frequent material for tabloid journalism.



This was around and after 2000, when the world came to know her and she would go on to appear in countless reality television shows (most notably “The Simple Life”), music videos, and movies – starring either as herself (or a variation), a character role (that “House of Wax” remake and “The Hottie and the Nottie”, to name a few), or a cameo (“Zoolander” and “The Bling Ring”) here and there. At this point, the socialite’s name was everywhere and she became known for carrying her petite canines around in fancy purses, seducing a burger for a Carl’s Jr. commercial, and then there was that sex tape scandal in 2003 with her then-boyfriend Rick Salomon which was leaked online before he started distributing it himself. All of this is how the world has known her, but what this documentary gradually does is peel back layers of Hilton the more she allows Dean (and us) to follow her.

“This is Paris” reminds us (while refreshing others, depending on their age) of all of these moments, either by clips from the aughts or talking head moments of people who know her (her maternal aunt, Kyle Richards) or her friend/prodigy (Kim Kardashian West), while peppering in home video footage of Hilton as a young girl and that surly age range (13-15 years old) – the latter of which reaffirms confirms she was once a child like any of us (besides being born into a hotel dynasty). Dean offers chapters from Hilton’s past, ones she’s known for and ones that feel like memories, along with the present, in order to give a well-rounded view of her subject.

One element that presents Paris Hilton in a more authentic way is her own reflective narration that Dean weaves throughout the film. Because her fake voices can be heard as she talks to people on the phone or greets them – sometimes airy/sometimes ditsy – her narration is different, noticeably natural. It’s a choice that confirms Hilton is definitely invested in presenting her true self here, allowing Dean to travel with her and inviting the director into her home.

Today, Paris travels over 250 days a year, as a businesswoman promoting over a dozen lines of her own products (fragrances, clothing, and various accessories) and touring as a DJ all around the world. That’s right, since 2012 Hilton has become the most sought after female DJ, pulling in one million per gig! Paris is always going somewhere and doing something, and always with a dose of drama (as her sister Nicky points out), mostly showing up to events frazzled or late, with hardly any sleep. Her life sounds exhausting and it certainly appears to be.



Hilton shares that one of the reasons she has a hard time sleeping is due to the recurring nightmares that torment her. Her mind races at night and the allure of Instagram posts are great, like many of us, but the images that reoccur in her dreams are ones from her past. It’s a past that Hilton can be heard recounting in her own emotional voice and one that Dean brings to life in illuminating animated sequences that reveal more and more as the film unfolds.

This is where we learn the bombshell of the documentary. Desperate to find a way to course-correct Paris’ disobedience and rowdy ways as a young teen, her parents sent her off to several “emotional wellness schools”, typically in remote locations across the U.S. Hilton would often run away from these locations, hoping to escape the boot camp-like environments, only to have been physically and verbally abused once she is retrieved by the staff. One of the last places Hilton was taken to was Provo Canyon School in Provo, Utah and when it is revealed the way in which she physically went there and what she endured while there, that’s some surprising reality is dropped.

“This is Paris” covers something surprisingly cathartic when Hilton organizes a reunion of a handful of her former Provo classmates, who’ve come together to discuss the torment they endured at Provo. This is when we learn more details, as Hilton and the other women recall being restrained, forced to take medication, put in solitary confinement, as well as being hit and strangled. It’s a part of the documentary that captures great bravery and courage, as we watch Paris and each woman share how their time at Provo impacted them. For viewers, it becomes an obvious time to apply some math and add up how her childhood trauma has prevented Paris from trusting others, men in particular, resulting in enduring further abuse and many failed romantic relationships.

What may seem even more surprising is how Paris’ mother was in the dark about all that her daughter experienced at Provo. In yet another emotional turn, Dean captures on film the moment when Paris reveals to Kathy what really happened to her at Provo. One can imagine how difficult that would be for a mother to hear and as the camera sits on the moment, the audience takes in that raw and real moment along with Kathy (curiously, Paris’ father does not appear at all). Exposing what happened at Provo and capturing these powerful interations on film, it becomes very clear that what Dean saw as she followed and got to know Hilton had a crucially important part of what she would be presenting.



Another standout moment in “This is Paris” that Dean excellently captures on a technical level, is a sequence captured last year at Tomorrowland, a popular electronic dance music festival in Antwerp, Belgium. Minutes before she went onstage, we see a stressed Hilton get into a heated argument with her then-boyfriend and knowing that she had to flip on the performer switch, Dean (working with editor Jill Woodward) cuts back-and-forth from her live performance in front of thousands to her boyfriend being escorted off the premises. It’s a fantastic behind-the-scenes moment that humanizes an icon. The sharply choreographed sequence parallels and reinforces how this film succeeds at looking at how celebrities are perceived, allowing viewers to connect and empathize with someone they probably never thought they could.

There are scenes in “This is Paris” where Hilton admits her behavior and lifestyle is a bit much, especially when she admits how influential she’s been. After all, she is considered to be “the original influencer” and “the architect of the selfie” and knowing the throng of fans she has around the world (primarily young females), she comes close to pondering what kind of impact she’s had and continues to have. It’s obvious she can’t consider letting up the crazy busy work ethic she has and the addiction she has to her wealth and status…at least not anytime soon.

“This is Paris” is a documentary that reminded me that there’s always more to a person’s life than how they come across or the way in which they are being presented – in essence, what they become known for. I can’t say I came away liking Paris Hilton more than I did prior to viewing, but I’m glad Dean made a film that had me confront my own judgements and dismissive feelings towards someone I previously thought was shallow and just “famous for being famous”.

“This is Paris” was set to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival this past April, but then COVID hit. As of September 14th, it will be available to stream for free on Paris Hilton’s YouTube page. You have the option of watching the documentary free with ads or you can stream the film ad-free and with exclusive bonus footage via YouTube Premium.


RATING: ***1/2



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