Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary that asks big questions about art and consumerism while pointing a camera squarely at one Mr. Brainwash (AKA Thierry Guetta), a French clothing salesman who may or may not be the focal point of one of the biggest pranks in the art world. Directed by Banksy, trickster god of the street art world, the film shows the rise of graffiti as a viable art form and how it becomes a commodity, while dramatizing Guetta's transformation from eccentric to art star.
The question that most people have after they watch Exit Through the Gift Shop: “Is this guy real?” There isn’t a clear-cut answer. Everyone in the documentary maintains that Guetta is an actual person, while admitting he’s also a Banksy creation. It’s confusing and blurs the line between reality and fiction - which is what makes the film, and Mr. Brainwash, so interesting.
One of the chief criticisms leveled at Exit Through the Gift Shop is that it may not be a documentary at all. With Banksy attached to the film, many people assume it's made with the same acerbic outlook as the rest of his art. Some members of the art world believe that, if Banksy says the film is a documentary, it must be anything but.
Banksy says this just isn't true. He insists everything in the film is real and that it wouldn't be as funny as it is if he tried to make it that way. He explained in a video during the film's Los Angeles premiere:
I don’t know why so many people have been fooled into thinking this film is fake. It’s a true story from real footage. Does it bother me people don’t believe it? I could never have written a script this funny.
Guetta, otherwise known as Mr. Brainwash, backed up Banksy's statement to the LA Times in 2011:
This movie is 100% real. He gives me a brush and a can, and he took the camera... [He said,] "Go make your own show and have people filming it."
After moving to Los Angeles with his family as a boy, Guetta dropped out of high school and worked a series of jobs before opening a vintage clothing store. He claims he was able to purchase clothing from Europe for $2 and sell it for as much as $200.
While it's not out of the question that he made a lot of money selling clothes, this background has led some critics to wonder how far he could really get on the income of a vintage store owner. The biggest question is how Guetta was able to finance trips around the world to film other artists while also putting up hundreds of thousands of dollars for his own show.
Aside from seeing Guetta fire off a few shots of paint from a spray can, the audience never sees him create art. Many of his pieces - even his inaugural poster featuring the man himself holding a camera - were designed by an illustrator in the style of a Banksy piece.
In spite of the fact he hires out a legion of minions to actually create his pieces, Guetta makes a mint off of his Mr. Brainwash pieces. The show documented in Exit Through the Gift Shop, "Life Is Beautiful," supposedly brought in six figures. Granted, it's common for artists to have assistants execute their vision. But Guetta - as presented in the film - appears particularly hands-off.
Is Mr. Brainwash a real artist, a real person? Was he created by Banksy to make a point about art, or did Banksy actually stumble on someone as strange as Guetta? Critics and fans of the film alike have noted that, through his work in the film, Guetta became a living Banksy piece.
While speaking with the LA Times in 2011, Guetta agreed with viewers and admitted that Banksy helped bring Mr. Brainwash to life:
Banksy captured me becoming an artist. In the end, I became his biggest work of art.