Austin Visschedyk looks like an average celebrity fan until he pulls out his giant camera.
Sometimes the actor Adrian Grenier feels like he's in a hall of mirrors. On the TV show Entourage, he plays fictional movie star Vinnie Chase, whose every move gets tracked by a pack of paparazzi. And when Grenier leaves the set, real-life celebrity photographers follow him home.
Now Grenier has turned the camera around, directing a documentary called Teenage Paparazzo — a project he began after meeting a 13-year-old professional named Austin Visschedyk.
"He was just this little innocent kid who approached me for a picture," Grenier remembers. "And at first I obliged, thinking he was a fan."
The picture changed quickly, though.
"When he pulled out a camera probably twice the size of his head, and 'sprayed' me with about 30 flash shots, I realized quickly that he was not just a fan, but something maybe more sinister."
The encounter prompted Grenier to try to make sense of a world where, in his estimation, "something [is] off."
"Now that tabloid obsession and celebrity culture had trickled down to our kids, I knew that it'd gone too far and I had to investigate more," he says.
Austin, in the film that resulted, embodies a craving for celebrity that's familiar — and easy enough to identify with, even for Grenier.
"I mean, I'm on Entourage," he shrugs. "It's what we indulge and promote. I think, in a lot of ways, celebrities represent the American dream. They have financial fluidity and options at their disposal." And so Grenier isn't surprised to see that kids are drawn toward celebrity, this "desirable, attainable thing."
"Of course they're going to go for it," he says.
Celebrities like Adrian Grenier and Paris Hilton don't usually get stalked by such a little paparazzi.
Celebrities like Adrian Grenier and Paris Hilton don't usually get stalked by such a little paparazzi. Matthew Cooke/HBO
'It's About The Bling'
The film references an eye-opening study that looked at how teenagers view the celebrity world and how it affects their goals. Cited in Jake Halpern's book Fame Junkies, it "asked middle school students and high school students whether they'd rather be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a president of a college, a Navy Seal, or an assistant to a celebrity," Grenier recalls.
The result? Forty-two percent said they'd want to be a celebrity's personal assistant.
As Halpern says, in the film's voice-over: "That was twice as much as [the percentage who wanted to be] president of Harvard or Yale, three times as much as a U.S. senator, four times as much as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company."
Those numbers say a lot about how American teens see the celebrity lifestyle, Halpern goes on to say.
"They put such a premium on fame that they're willing to give up some of the most coveted jobs in America just to be the bag-carrier to the celebrity," he says.
Grenier doesn't disagree.
"For a long time in our culture, there was an emphasis put on working hard [and] contributing to your society," he says. "Now it's not about that anymore. It's about the bling and how quickly you can get it without working."
Teen paparazzo Austin Visschedyk finds himself the center of actor Adrian Grenier's attention as each tries to understand the other's point of view.
Teen paparazzo Austin Visschedyk finds himself the center of actor Adrian Grenier's attention as each tries to understand the other's point of view. Matthew Cooke/HBO
'You're The One Who Created The Magnet'
It's easy to decry celebrity culture, and just as easy to sneer at paparazzi, to dismiss them as parasites. But maybe it's not that simple.
"It's a dance," Grenier says. "It's a collaboration of sorts."
Comedian Lewis Black, who appears in the documentary, agrees.
"I've never understood people who got into this and then can't deal with that," he says. "I'm sorry, that's part of it. You've asked for it. Why'd you hire the PR person? You're the one who in a sense has created the magnet."
Indeed Teenage Paparazzo frames the put-upon star's daily dilemma: Without an audience, what's a celebrity?
"Being performers, that's what we do: We put on shows and want people to watch," Grenier says. "So it is ironic to, you know, suddenly expect people to stop watching."
Teenage Paparazzo looks at both sides of the issue, with input from several celebrities. Actor Matt Damon says one key is actively managing your own "story."
"My story is kind of a boring one," Damon says in the film. "It's a 'He's married and he's got kids and that's it.' As long as I don't do anything to update that story, all they do is grab a picture every once in a while and kind of update the file — 'Yep, still married, still happy, still boring.' "
Grenier found out firsthand that Damon's advice is pretty solid. The fledgling director had to think about his own story a little during the making of the film.
"I was spending a lot of time with Paris Hilton," he says, "and I was in the tabs a lot — because obviously she gets a lot of gossip about her. So you know, I was sort of by association pulled into that whole world of hers."
It wasn't long before he got a call from his manager.
" 'What are you doing? Can you please go home? Stay home,' " he remembers her saying. "That was her advice to me. Because when you go out, and you have fun, basically you're performing for these tabloid outlets and the paparazzi. And when you perform and create this story, they're chuffed — they get excited, they capture it, and they put it out."
For Grenier, making Teenage Paparazzo hasn't been just about putting out a documentary. It's been a learning experience, shaping his opinions.
"I think anybody who's famous has to deal with their fame in their own way," Grenier says, "and I dealt with it by making a film about a kid who's looking out into the world of celebrity obsession. And this was my way of reconciling this fame experience, and also trying to take responsibility. And I think anytime you spend time to find empathy for another group, there's a great sense of empowerment in that."