Alpha Dog: A Glimpse at the True American Idols

“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down.”

— “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield, 1967

It’s 11:38 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 17…

And instead of putting the finishing touches on the first of a two-part Whiskey & Gunpowder series on the good, bad, and ugly aspects of certain endangered American freedoms — as embodied by the strippers, dancers, hookers, gamblers, pimps, porn stars, pit bosses, winners, losers, moguls, and magnates of Las Vegas — I’m banging away at this, what some readers will no doubt dismiss as a glorified movie review.

Yes, I am writing to talk about a movie — at least in part. But I’m not writing this to kick off my career as a film critic. I’m fast-tracking this piece out to you because the film I just got home from seeing is so disturbing and accurate a portrayal of such a sizeable segment of young life in America that it transcends entertainment, in my opinion…

Like a handful of other films through the years (The Hustler,River’s Edge, etc.), this movie is more than just a story about young adults who run astray and get in trouble in a world with increasingly few boundaries — it’s a Polaroid snapshot of the decay among modern youth of certain innate sensibilities that most within every previous generation of Americans seem to have hard-wired into them. It’s also starkly illustrative of some 21st-century kids’ utter inability to grasp things like “right and wrong” or “consequences.”

What makes it all the scarier is that it’s a TRUE STORY.

I Think It’s Time We Stop, Children…

The movie I’m talking about is called Alpha Dog, and it’s a modest-budget, limited-release film that’s actually been “in the can” (awaiting release) since the fall of 2004. The reason it wasn’t released two years ago is that the attorney for the real-life criminal one of the film’s main characters is based upon aggressively lobbied to suppress the movie’s release for fear of coloring his client’s ability to obtain an unbiased jury trial…

The movie is closely inspired by the Southern California abduction and murder of 15-year-old Nick Markowitz in August 2000 over a $1,200 drug debt incurred by his older half brother. This is exactly the premise of Alpha Dog, but with different names and in a marginally changed time frame and location.

Predictably, a lot of the L.A.-area critics have either panned the film or given it only the most sparing plaudits for acting excellence (there’s plenty of this, i.e., included an astonishingly good performance by pop icon Justin Timberlake, of Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” fame). This is not surprising, since the movie portrays not a single character in the upper-middle-class West Hills neighborhood the film plays out in that’s worth knowing, except the 15-year-old victim.

And to be sure, Alpha Dog isn’t a monumentally great piece of moviemaking. It’s a bit cliched and overwrought in places (all the characters are lean and hot-looking — all the parties drunken, drug-fueled love fests with nary a disease, OD, or hangover shown) and it plays up the romance and sexiness of the wealthy SoCal too-much-time-and-money-on-our-hands characters’ summertime exploits, clearly to boost box office appeal for kids…

But apparently, the film’s very true to the facts.

According to what little research I’ve been able to conduct, the saga’s main drug kingpin and perpetrator — a kid named Jesse James Hollywood — was in fact super-fit, dating a model, rolling in dough, cruised the town in a high-dollar pimped-out ride, and owned a posh, Rottweiler-guarded West Hills house at age 20! He did indeed run with a beautiful and loaded (in more ways than one) crowd, and lived his life like it was some kind of rap music video.

Which brings me to some of my main points with this piece:

  1. The inexorable truth that young adults are profoundly influenced by the lowest common denominators in pop culture (I was — weren’t you?), and…
  2. That in an environment in which parents have been conditioned by the hands-off, time-out, PC, self-esteem-obsessed mainstream to not “parent” at all (either that or they’re paralyzed into ineffectuality by their own dependencies and neuroses), who’s left to guide kids BUT pop stars?

What’s That Sound?

Every generation, it seems, views itself as the last “good one” in America. I think it’s a natural tendency of people to remember themselves, as they grow older, as the last of a dying breed of practitioners of the kind of behavior they wish they received more often as they age: Things like respect, restraint, responsibility, moderation, deference to the wisdom of elders, etc.

That’s why it’s so ironic and comical that a guy like me — a person who not all that long ago no doubt spurred this kind of thinking in a few of MY elders — is now spouting off about “kids these days…”

Yes, it’s funny, and perhaps even borderline hypocritical. Every generation pushes the envelope of the one that came before — and every “parent” generation laments the perceived lack of their own sensibilities in their progeny.

But think about this for a minute: How many of you reading this — whether you grew up in the Sinatra age, the Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis age, the Beatles and Stones era, the Saturday Night Fever days, or the U2 era — heard messages in your music like those being bleeped and cussed and euphemized through in hip-hop/pop music nowadays?

Sure, there was some objectification going on (remember Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video?), a healthy amount of social rebellion, and perhaps the odd veiled reference to drugs now and again. These things are universal, and quintessential to most all art…

And we were influenced by it. Remember? My parents and uncles had the wide collars and disco pants — or the black-light psychedelia — of the ’70s. I had the streaked hair, camo pants, dark eyeliner (seriously!), sleeveless oxford, and black trench coat of the quasi-punk ’80s.

Honest, there are pictures out there somewhere.

That’s why it unnerves me so much to switch on a music video channel (try it sometime) and see and hear “songs” about killing cops, bustin’ caps, runnin’ smack, smokin’ crack, hos, bitches, and drive-by violence. I KNOW young people are taking this stuff to heart, because I used to do the same thing.

If I were 17 right now, I can’t imagine what I might be like after several hours a day of what passes for music nowadays. I thank my lucky stars that my teenage years fell in the 1980s — when success was cool and everyone was bullish on America. I never felt the need to worry about my “street cred” or to pack a pistol into the mall…

I do NOW, though.

And what makes this all doubly scary to me is the modern trend toward ever-less-disciplined parenting. It was one thing to get a little wild when I was a kid, or when my mom was young. There were still stern parents waiting to give you the “what-fer” if you went too far…

But nowadays, a lot of people have been sold on the notion of “laissez-faire” parenting, or are paralyzed by the fear of criminal repercussions if they discipline their kids sternly. The American political climate is such nowadays that a lot of what was considered perfectly appropriate parenting a few decades ago now qualifies as abuse!

Young folks know it, too — and they exploit it. I’ve heard horror stories about routine discipline backfiring because spiteful kids know how to twist the facts to hurt their parents. Aside from this, a lot of parents nowadays share the same addictions with their kids: drugs (illicit and prescription), alcohol, sex, you name it.

I hate to sound like just another “hell in a handbasket” curmudgeon — but seriously, it’s a mess out there. And I’m not even a PARENT!

Being single, a lot of women I meet ask me point-blank why I don’t have any kids, and why I may be somewhat reluctant to have kids. Now, all I have to do is tell them to watch Alpha Dog. I have no doubt in my own ability to be a great parent, but just knowing that this kind of youth culture is what’s waiting to sabotage my best efforts gives me pause…

And knowing that my brand of parenting might get me in hot water with a bunch of limp-wristed do-gooder guidance counselor types doesn’t exactly help me, either.

Bottom line: Add together ever more outrageous examples of penalty-less conduct in song and film with ever-less guidance — or even good examples — from those who SHOULD be holding the reins, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

And that’s exactly what Alpha Dog so starkly illustrates.

Everybody Look What’s Going Down…

I don’t want to go into too much detail about how the parents — or even the “kids” — in Alpha Dog are portrayed. I really do want you to see this film, whether in the theater or on DVD. What I will say is this…

You’ll see the characters — adult and juvenile — fixating on exactly what today’s popular culture shows them they should be fixated upon: mindless, pleasure-less sex; endless drug-induced escapism; violence in the name of anything (respect, turf, cred, gang membership); the overt and public degradation of women; and ultimate callous selfishness.

And all without the least thought about consequences.

If you think I’m being melodramatic about all this, I want you to do something for me: Go to and browse people of either sex in the 18-30 range in your area. Take a good look at them. Read the intimate things they post about themselves. See how some of them put themselves on display in ways you’d never consider outside of a boudoir. Really listen to the songs that come up with their profiles — write the titles down and then go look up the lyrics online if you can’t understand them…

Now search folks in the 31-42 age range. See the single “MILF” moms (if you don’t get this, look it up) dressed up exactly like their teenage kids — with the flat-brimmed hats, the oversize sports apparel, the tattoos and piercings, the tight hip-huggers with “hottie” emblazoned across the ass. See the photos of them partying WITH their kids. Check out the steroid-case guys, the gangsta-looking thugs. Read the things they write, how they describe themselves, who they’re looking for in life…

Now, go to the local mall on a Saturday night and take a look around at the young people of all kinds, shapes, and colors. Listen to the music that’s booming out of their cars. Look at the oversized coats concealing God-knows-what, and the skimpy outfits revealing everyone-knows-what…

And once you’ve done that, go see Alpha Dog, and see what a lot of today’s kids want to be — and what a scary number of them actually are.

Lamenting, but not (yet) parenting,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

January 19, 2007

The Daily Reckoning