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Getting at the truth of 'Exit Through the Gift Shop'

Thierry Guetta, the Oscar-nominated documentary's subject, says it's '100% real.' Public records support his biography, but questions persist about Banksy's role.

February 22, 2011|By Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times
  • Thierry Guetta (Mr. Brainwash) is seen near his mural on La Brea near San Vicente.
Thierry Guetta (Mr. Brainwash) is seen near his mural on La Brea near San… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)

Heading into Sunday's Academy Awards, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is undoubtedly the most buzzed-about film in the documentary feature category. But the uncomfortable question persists: Is it real?

The movie is anchored by two of the least reliable narrators in memory: Banksy, the anonymous British street artist; and Thierry Guetta, an eccentric French émigré to Los Angeles whose obsessive filming happens to capture the world of high-concept graffiti. In alternating interviews, the two recount the rise of anti-establishment vandals into the upper echelons of the art world, where their work quickly became commodified.

The twist comes with Guetta's transformation from the movement's accidental video scribe into Mr. Brainwash, a street artist phenomenon whose 2008 coming-out party in Los Angeles made him an instant — if completely derivative — success, and whose art now sells in the six figures.

The camera captures it all, sparking speculation about the film's veracity: Did the clever Banksy — the film's credited director — create Guetta to mock the art world? Is Guetta — who shot much of the footage — actually a paid actor playing a savant-like character invented for the project? Or, as some have speculated, is he Banksy himself?

Banksy has insisted the film is completely true. But coming from an unidentifiable artist whose work includes titles such as "I can't believe you morons actually buy this …," such claims have only fueled the doubts.

Guetta himself, speaking to The Times in his first extended interview since the film was released last spring, said, "This movie is 100% real."

Over cigarettes and McDonald's fries at his studio on La Brea Avenue last week, Guetta recounted his path from a rough Parisian suburb to California, where he repeatedly reinvented himself — going from teenage nightclub impresario to clothing store owner, filmmaker and, ultimately, pop artist. If there was one constant, it was Guetta's uncanny knack for selling Angelenos the cutting edge of cool.

The details of Guetta's unlikely biography are broadly supported by a review of public records, which trace his life in Los Angeles from his arrival as a teenager in the early 1980s. They are also consistent with the accounts of friends, former business associates and employees over those years.

Of course, it is impossible to prove whether his latest incarnation, Mr. Brainwash, is sincere. The film suggests that Guetta's artistic alter ego is largely a creation of Banksy, a notion Guetta doesn't refute.

"Banksy captured me becoming an artist," the paint-splattered Guetta said, surrounded by the stacks of art books and pop-culture clutter from which his work is derived — or ripped off, depending on your view. "In the end, I became his biggest work of art."

'Smart partners'

Guetta was born in 1966 in Garges-lès-Gonesse, a seedy suburb a half-hour drive north of Paris, the youngest of five children of Tunisian Jews who had moved to France to escape persecution.

His mother died when he was a child, and when Guetta was 15, his father moved the family to Los Angeles. Public records show his Social Security number was registered in the early 1980s. For months, they stayed in a cheap hotel on Fairfax Avenue — today's boutique Farmer's Daughter Hotel — before settling in a nearby apartment. His father soon returned to France and passed away, leaving Guetta and his siblings to fend for themselves.

He attended Fairfax High for about a year, despite speaking no English. After dropping out, he said he started organizing nightclub parties in Hollywood that became popular with the celebrity set.

"I was trying to be an adult right away," he recalled.

He also got a job at a vintage clothing store in Venice, starting out on a ladder to keep an eye out for shoplifters. But he showed up early and stayed late, was promoted to manager and eventually bought out the owner, he said.

Between 1985 and the late 1990s, records show Guetta launched a series of businesses with names such as Vintage Supermarket and Rugsaver: The Vintage Shop, his store on La Brea. Guetta said he imported cheap used clothes from France and repackaged them as designer vintage, occasionally selling them as templates to high-end designers like Ralph Lauren.

"Buy for $2, sell it for $200," he recalled. "We turn trash to gold, and I start making a lot of money."

He and his brothers also began designing clothes, sewing scraps of jeans into jackets and finishing them with Looney Tunes characters cut out of beach towels. The look took off, Guetta said, and soon they were selling at stores in Los Angeles, New York and Miami.

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