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House of Kardashian review – this exhaustive show turns Kim and co’s circus into a meaningful story

<span>Photograph: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

House of Kardashian is put together in such a way that it may well act as a Rorschach test. You might come away from this three-hour documentary series thinking that the Kardashian-Jenner family is a pioneering model of female-led entrepreneurship and empowerment – or that they are a late-stage capitalist nightmare, changing society for the worse, atop their gilded mountains of cash.

At the end of each instalment, there is a note to say that the Kardashian-Jenners (and later, Kanye West) declined to be interviewed. Mostly, it features peripheral friends – intriguingly, one particularly strident contributor, Rachel Sterling, is referred to as a “former friend” of Kim’s, though sadly they don’t explain why – and colleagues from over the years, though Caitlyn Jenner is interviewed at length, and has been as close to the inner workings of this many-headed beast as anyone is likely to get.

It works as a potted history of the family’s rise to fame, notoriety and wealth, suggesting that their current value, as an empire, stands at roughly $2bn (£1.65bn). It also works as an analysis of how they came from, fitted into and even shaped the cultural and social climate of the modern age. Each episode focuses on a different Kardashian – Kris, the mother, then two of the three sisters, Kim and Kylie – as representative of a different era, though each attempts to wrangle the entire circus into a coherent and chronological narrative.

It does so with some success, even for those of us who have actively avoided the Kardashians’ endless reality production line, for fear of being sucked into the maelstrom. It follows “momager” Kris’s trajectory, from flight attendant to society wife, to savvy businesswoman known as “the velvet hammer” due to her no-nonsense negotiating charms, to celebrity in her own right. It tells the story of her first marriage, to the lawyer Robert Kardashian, who defended his close friend OJ Simpson at his murder trial in 1995. That was the family’s first real experience of the media spotlight. Kim and Kourtney appeared at their father’s side, while Kris attended the trial with her new husband, the Olympic athlete then known as Bruce Jenner, in support of the victim, her friend Nicole Brown. (The director Katie Hindley asks Caitlyn Jenner how she would prefer to be talked about pre-transition and she says she is happy with Bruce.)

The OJ Simpson trial is just one of the cultural flashpoints. By episode two, we are on to sex tapes and the early 2000s culture of the so-called
“empowerment” of women. The series spends a questionable amount of time interviewing the truly odious Joe Francis, who was behind the negotiations for the release of Kim’s sex tape. Francis founded the Girls Gone Wild franchise, in which young women, often drunk, were persuaded to strip off on camera, for footage that was sold on DVD or VHS. That his obnoxious comments here about pubic hair are the least offensive thing about him says a lot. There is some discussion, still, about whether Kris was involved in the business of the sale of her daughter’s sex tape – some say yes, some no – but, regardless, as a launchpad to celebrity it worked. In 2007, the reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians began, which shot everyone involved into the stratosphere of international fame.

The family’s lives have been public ever since. The film rushes through Kim’s short-lived marriage to the basketball player Kris Humphries and longer one to Kanye West, Caitlyn’s gender dysphoria and transition, Kylie’s beauty business and her brother Rob’s scandals. The rise of social media, the #MeToo movement, impossible beauty standards, “Instagram face” and allegations of “blackfishing” are scooped up along the way. It discusses the branding and the product that the Kardashians are selling, as well as asking gently why the public are so keen to consume it.

At times, it is exhaustive – and occasionally exhausting – though I imagine not nearly as exhausting as keeping up with Keeping Up with the Kardashians and its many offshoots over the last three decades. For those who have put in the time and work, there probably won’t be many revelations. It is also missing a little frivolity and fluff. But for casual observers, those of us who have absorbed the Kardashian phenomenon simply because it is impossible not to, the film tells a persuasive story, asks smart questions and ends up being a series that you can interpret in whatever way you choose. The Kardashians have done well out of being a relatively blank canvas themselves, so it’s fitting that the same applies here.

  • House of Kardashian was shown on Sky Documentaries and is available on Now.