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‘Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me’ doesn’t shed much new light on her story

<i>Netflix</i><br/>Anna Nicole Smith (center)
Anna Nicole Smith (center)

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Perhaps it’s the title, or the fact that it’s harder to make a case about someone being exploited by media in life when you’re doing the same thing after her death. Either way, “Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me” doesn’t provide as much insight as it promises to on the Playboy model/actor, who died too young after living under the harsh glare of the tabloid spotlight.

Born Vickie Lynn Hogan, the Texas native married at 17, became a mother a year later and eventually parlayed her looks into a ticket to Hollywood, working as an adult dancer and model along the way.

Discovered by Playboy, she joins a long list of blonde bombshells sucked into the media’s hungry maw, as evidenced by Pamela Anderson’s recent Netflix documentary and any number of projects devoted to the life of Marilyn Monroe, the Netflix movie “Blonde” among the more recent additions.

At first, Smith seemed to understand the drill, enjoying what amounted to a symbiotic arrangement with the paparazzi. There was also the irresistible weirdness of her relationship with and eventual marriage to billionaire J. Howard Marshall, insisting she loved him despite the 63-year age difference, rather pathetically illustrated here through a series of phone messages the old man left her when she was away.

Director Ursula Macfarlane (who did “Untouchable,” the British documentary about producer Harvey Weinstein) draws upon the requisite mix of home movies and interviews with key people in Smith’s life, including some that haven’t previously spoken about her publicly. That includes discussion of her abuse of diet pills and other drugs that resulted in her death in 2007, at the age of 39.

What “You Don’t Know Me” doesn’t do particularly well is separate the glossy image from the woman underneath, or explain the more contradictory and confounding aspects of her existence, including her ties to Marshall and later the lawyer Howard Stern.

The documentary comes closest to striking a nerve when it explores the E! reality show that featured Smith, which clearly set her up as an object of curiosity and ridicule – a comedic figure after “The Osbournes” established the template of the “reality sitcom.” In hindsight, that framing looks especially unfortunate given the tragedies that would later befall Smith and her son, Daniel, who died of a drug overdose.

“Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me” is another variation on a familiar cautionary tale, a warning about fame chewing people up and spitting them out. While there are some new details in the telling, the net effect leaves the Smith that people didn’t know, other than those meticulously airbrushed photo spreads, largely untouched.

“Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me” premieres May 16 on Netflix.

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