Why We Live in Public Deserves Another Look

Nathan Rabin reexamines a fascinating 2009 documentary about a lonely man obsessed with TV culture.

by | March 29, 2016 | Comments


Like a lot of folks, I recently became morbidly obsessed with Martin Shkreli, the preeminent cultural villain who leapt notoriously into the national spotlight when he infamously jacked up the price of a pill of Daraprim — used to treat malaria and AIDS, among other things — from $13.50 to $750 a pill. For you non-math majors out there, that’s an increase of 5,500 percent, or slightly more than factors like inflation might warrant. This act of flagrant douchebaggery would compel most executives to keep a low profile and let their publicists try to change the public perception that they represent evil in its purest form, but Shkreli decided that, dammit, this was his time to shine. Forget hiding in shame; this pharma bro was ready for his closeup.

Instead of shrinking away, Shkreli went on the offensive, conducting interviews, tweeting up a storm, and doing everything in his power to change his public image. Shkreli understood that we live in a world where the line between fame and infamy has become blurry to the point of meaninglessness. He intuited that becoming famous for the wrong reasons oftentimes results in even more publicity than becoming famous for the right reasons. And at this point, it seems like that was as much of an endgame for Shrkeli as were money and power.

The more the world hated Shkreli, and the more it wanted to punch him right in his smug, smirking face, the more Shkreli put himself out there. It was as if he imagined that, with enough money, he could buy the public’s love and approval. He tried to donate $2,700 to Bernie Sanders, only to have Sanders turn around and reject the offer as hopelessly tainted.

Then Shkreli turned around and purchased the only copy of Wu-Tang Clan’s new album, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, for $2 million (which is roughly $2 million more than most hip hop fans would be willing to pay for recent Wu-Tang Clan albums) and when Ghostface Killah, one of the super-group’s more outspoken members, expressed regret that the album ended up in Shkreli’s claws, the hoodie-wearing, video game-loving bro had the chutzpah to publicly tough-talk the hip hop legend.

What I find fascinating about Shkreli is not that he’s evil or shameless or conniving. Those are pretty common qualities for successful businessmen. No, what I find fascinating about Shkreli — and why I find myself sometimes identifying and empathizing with him — is because more than anything, he just seems sad. You don’t have to delve deep to see the lost, lonely little boy in Shkreli who imagined that with enough money and power, he could finally get the love and validation he so nakedly craved. It’s all there on the surface: the squirmy, human tragedy behind the braying public awfulness. As befits a man whose love for emo is part of his weird brand, Shkreli is the boy with the thorn in his side.

“Television wasn’t just Harris’ best friend, it was his only friend.”

Shkreli’s strange, Warholian infamy would make me recall Ondi Timoner’s 2009 documentary We Live In Public even if he hadn’t recently decided that the world needed the kind of exhaustive documentation of his existence that only a Youtube account live-streaming his days could provide. In this respect, he’s following in the footsteps of We Live In Public subject and fellow rich weirdo Josh Harris, who decided to create a massive online “human terrarium” where the lives of the participants would be webcast to a voyeuristic public 24/7.

Like Shkreli, Harris’ life as an obscenely rich entrepreneur ultimately became something like an elaborate performance art experiment gone awry. His need for attention similarly came to take on a deeply unhealthy, pathological edge, as he was no longer able, or interested, in distinguishing between good attention and bad.

That need for attention and inability to obtain it healthily began during a lonely childhood during which television wasn’t just his best friend, it was his only friend. Harris confesses that Gilligan’s Island creator Sherwood Schwartz played a bigger role in his childhood than his own parents did. Harris was a latchkey kid, a little boy who embraced sitcom characters and television as an early form of virtual living. In its own lo-fi, cheesy manner, television provided virtual friends you could see all the time but never actually meet in person, in addition to distant mentors like Schwartz, whose objectively terrible creations affected Harris’ life and work in striking ways.

Most disturbingly, at the height of his power, fame, and riches during the dizzy days of the dot-com boom, Harris developed a freakish alter-ego he named “Luvvy” after “Lovey” Howell, the wife of millionaire Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. But that wealthy matron was only part of the bizarre stew of influences that went into the character, who was a toxic, difficult-to-watch cross between a dizzy high society matron (that would be the Lovey Howell part), a nightmare-inducing clown of the John Wayne Gacy variety, and an insufferable improv character that amuses only the person subjecting the audience to it.

Harris was no comedian or actor, and by all accounts everyone was horrified and disturbed by Luvvy, particularly Harris’ business partners, who responded to an important financial ally inexplicably showing up for events dressed like an insane, androgynous Juggalo about as well as you would imagine. Even in a dot-com boom with a seemingly bottomless tolerance for eccentricity and bad behavior as long as the money kept rolling in, Luvvy struck a lot of people as repellent. People thought they were doing business with a forward-thinking business and technology visionary (which, for all his faults, Harris most assuredly was) and were understandably chagrined to be confronted with a character that was Harris’s raw, rampaging id in its purest form.

The best that could be said about Luvvy was that underneath the creepiness and repulsion, it was a sweet attempt to connect with other people from a man who, like Shkreli, was adept with money and technology yet seemed poignantly unable to understand human beings.

“Harris had created, in essence, a party that nobody could leave until he said they could.”

Harris became as well known for his parties as his innovations in online television. The two were closely interconnected, as his employee base was taken pretty much exclusively from people he met at elaborate parties where, to quote a rubbernecker interviewed in We Live In Public, there were “supermodels sitting in the laps of nerds playing Doom.” 

At one point this lonely little nerd was worth $80 million (hey, it was the 1990s, and hundred dollar bills fell like manna from heaven to anyone with a halfway feasible idea involving computers), so he decided to leverage his money, wealth, and fame into creating a massive social experiment. The idea was to have a group of artists, bohemians and spiritual seekers live underground in a capsule hotel and have their every moment captured by a vast sea of video cameras maintaining a level of surveillance Stalin would have envied.

The plan was to create either a cyber-utopia of total freedom and decadence or a waking nightmare of psychological abuse and total control. From the beginning, the experiment had overtly Fascist overtones. For reasons known only to Harris, for example, there was an official “interrogator” whose job it was to break participants down psychologically, using methods that, if they didn’t constitute torture outright, certainly bordered on it.

Guns were freely available at the gun range, as were drugs and alcohol and just about anything someone might want, other than freedom and autonomy. The participants in this experiment did what people almost invariably do when they’re given complete and total freedom: they abused it. The project devolved from a Woodstock-style techno-utopia that combined cutting-edge contemporary technology with the life-is-art-and-art-is-life aesthetic of Andy Warhol’s Factory to an Altamont-esque nightmare, as people who were never too stable to begin with began to crack under the pressure of constant monitoring, claustrophobia, and the distant yet ominous presence of Harris himself.

Harris had created, in essence, a party that nobody could leave until he said they could. And by making the rules everyone had to live by, the little boy whose only source of comfort was a television screen grew up to be a man who could control people whose lives were being exhaustively documented.

Given the combustible elements at play and Harris’ own awfulness, it’s amazing that this experiment didn’t end with multiple deaths. But after the turn of the millennium, Harris lost interest in his project and decided to embark on a smaller-scale but equally intense exercise in extreme cyber-voyeurism and exhibitionism.

Harris decided that he and his girlfriend — an ebullient, charming beauty named Tanya Corrin who deserved so much better than Harris — would be the first couple to live their lives entirely online and in public, wiring his home with surveillance cameras and inviting online rubberneckers to interact with the increasingly unhappy couple online.

“Harris refers to himself as one of the first great artists of the century, and it’s clear that he saw his life as his true art form.”

Not surprisingly, these cameras ended up capturing the dissolution and destruction of Harris and his girlfriend’s relationship, although toward the end, Harris seemed as worried about the ever-declining number of people watching his life as he was by the end of their relationship.

In the documentary, Harris refers to himself as one of the first great artists of the century, and it’s clear that he saw his life as his true art form. Like Shkreli, he considers himself a celebrity; it doesn’t seem to matter that he became quasi-famous for embodying the worst excesses of the dot-com boom, that he’s a cautionary tale rather than a success story. No, all that matters is that, for a while, people were paying attention to him and his crazy experiments, and when people stopped paying attention, a part of him died.

Harris anticipated our age of eternal exhibitionism, except that today we document every moment of our lives via the slick, shiny, consumer-friendly mediums of Twitter, Facebook, Vine, and Instagram instead of letting cameras and an unseen overlord broadcast our lives to anyone curious about them.

Shkreli and Harris are fascinating monsters in part because they are so achingly human in their mad hunger for love, connection, and meaning and their inability to attain them. Perhaps what I find saddest and most terrifying about these two strange, sinister figures is how deeply I identify with them.

You can buy a lot of things with money. You can buy the only copy of a Wu-Tang Clan album. You can buy companies and use your fortune to build a strange little hermetically sealed little world whose dimensions and rules you control. You can buy attention. But there are also things you cannot buy. You cannot buy love. You cannot buy respect. You cannot buy genuine friendship, although fake friends can be bought not only with money but with drugs and power as well.

That, ultimately, is the tragedy of Harris and of Shkreli. Love, respect, and genuine friendship are seemingly what they wanted most out of the world, and those were the things that were forever out of their reach. Once the party ended, the money ran out, and the people you paid to pretend to be your friends went home, these would-be masters of the universe were left only with themselves. We Live In Public suggests that’s a torment and a punishment every bit as bad as the prison sentence Shkreli potentially has lying in his very near future.

Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 81 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh

Follow Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @nathanrabin

  • barryfallsjr

    Watched this when it came out and was blown away at how insane it was. Then I never heard anyone ever talk about it. I completely agree that it deserves more recognition than it does. It might be a glimpse into the not-so-distant future.

  • Yes Stradamus

    We can and weren’t. Why not?

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