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Children of Paradise

FAST FORWARD: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.\o7 By Lauren Greenfield\f7 .\o7 With an introduction by Carrie Fisher and an afterword by Richard Rodriguez\f7 .\o7 Alfred A. Knopf/Melcher Media: 128 pp., $35\f7

June 15, 1997|RICHARD RAYNER | Richard Rayner is the author of the memoir "The Blue Suit." His new novel, "Murder Book," will be published in October

A couple of weeks ago, I was with one of my sons in the doctor's waiting room when a woman sashayed through the door with her kids. Casually dressed, in slacks and a sloppy T-shirt that said Katherine Hamnett on the back, she was blond, brisk, polite, obviously very composed and very attractive. The only sign that she might be someone a little bit more special was the immaculate vermilion sheen of her painted toenails; oh, and the fact that she never removed her sunglasses. As far as she was concerned she was a mother, a normal person like anyone else, trying to go about her parenting business. To me, at first, she looked like Michelle Pfeiffer. Then I realized it actually was Pfeiffer, descended from Olympus. My head turned.

It was pure L.A., a moment unique to this city, where from time to time, fantasy rears up to tantalize you, to remind you that it too can have a son with strep throat. You feel a part of it, that fantasy. It's close enough to touch, to talk to; it's real. This is a dangerous feeling because for a few, Los Angeles is indeed the city of dreams fulfilled, while for most, it's a junkyard where dreams are crushed and vanish without a trace. This is a tough enough realization for adults, so imagine how it must be for kids.

Childhood is, has always been, a threatened commodity. I don't believe that innocence is lost any earlier in Los Angeles than it was in Victorian London, where youngsters were stuffed up chimneys, or in contemporary Pakistan, where they're sold to factory owners to stitch up leather soccer balls. But the adult world that we impose on kids in Los Angeles is perhaps unique because it's about the difficulty of distinguishing between fantasy and reality. The movie star, the writer, the waitress, the guy just across the border, the 7-year-old on the bus--each carries his own version of the city inside him, yet so many of those visions are likely to have been influenced, soured or inspired by the entertainment industry. As photographer Lauren Greenfield writes in the introduction to her collection, "Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood": "Although trends come and go, especially among teenagers, I was intrigued by the role of the media as a homogenizing force. Against the foil of obvious material differences, I began to explore the ways in which young people from diverse backgrounds are similarly influenced by a popular culture they share."

Los Angeles is--by and large--where that culture is created. Movies, TV, rap: The common language of American youth emanates from the city. Greenfield begins with her own high school, Crossroads, a private school in Santa Monica, and fans out from there. Via a linking chain of schools, proms and music, the book looks at the lives of privileged white kids in Malibu and Bel Air, at white teenagers who wish they were black and at African American and Latino near-adults, whose take on reality is smarter, tougher and more mature but no less materialistic or delusional.

"My dream is to have a black-owned record company putting out platinum hits so that any time I can say I made $20 million dollars this year," says G-mo. "I'm a Cali boy. I want to have thangs. I want to be famous. But even more I want some ends, some money. I want to stack my money. I'm young. The sky's the limit. In 10 years I expect to have it all sewed up."

The kids in "Fast Forward" are obsessed with money, the flaunting of it, the spending of it, the grubbing for it. Even those wealthy enough to be able to ignore it have a near-Balzacian awareness of its significance. Its power sticks to them like something nasty oozing from the La Brea tar pits.

Adam describes his bar mitzvah: "People usually spend between 15 grand--15 being the lowest, really low--to 90 grand. I had a glassblower and carnival games, lots of them. I had a sweatshirt maker, a make-up-your-own video game. I had dancers. I had a steel drum band during the appetizers. I had fake stuffed lions and parrots. I felt really good after the bar mitzvah, and I was getting a lot of play with the girls." At 13, he sounds like he's already describing a good day at ICM. He's also one of the book's smarter and more self-aware or, at least, self-ironizing characters, also saying: "The glamorous Hollywood, the TV and movie industry--it affects kids. Who I know, who you know, how rich you are, what your dad does, what your mom does, does he work, does she work, what you have, what I have, what movies has he produced, what movie is he producing. Money affects kids in many ways. I mean, it has ruined a lot of kids I know. And not to brag--I feel it has ruined me."

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