'Jessica! Jessica!" yell a crowd of photographers running en masse as a limo pulls up, then swarming as Jessica Simpson exits the dark vehicle.

Paparazzi pandemonium ensues - sharks in bloodied water, buzzards diving beak-first into a carcass.

So opens $ellebrity, an intelligent if somewhat inadequate critique of the billion-dollar celebrity-industrial complex, gorgeously-shot and edited by an ace team assembled by director Kevin Mazur.

Mazur's first feature-length docu, which screened to positive notices at the Sundance Film Festival last winter, will premiere Friday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.

"It's a really weird, scary feeling," Jennifer Aniston tells viewers of the paparazzi as the Simpson footage lingers on-screen. "You're disoriented. You can't see in front of you. It's like . . . it's false imprisonment. I can't get away, I can't get out."

Viewers may have little sympathy when people like Aniston and Simpson complain about their lots. Granted. But as $ellebrity shows, there is something highly disturbing about the phenomenon.

Mazur's film sets out to find out why, exploring how our obsession with celebs is further fanned by a media machinery that milks celebs and fans alike for millions of dollars.

Mazur offers an incisive insider peek at the magazines, tabloids, and TV shows that cover celebs. He follows how photogs and video operators snap and sell their money-shots to TMZ, Us Weekly, People, OK!, and countless other outlets.

There's never a shortage for celeb material - a testament to the public's insatiable hunger.

While it's clear Mazur has little but contempt for paparazzi, he does try to tell the story from all sides. Interviews with A-list stars including Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, Kid Rock, Elton John and Sarah Jessica Parker are matched by chats with celeb journos such as the pioneering former Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller and photogs Darryn Lyons and Ricardo Mendoza.

The film takes an obligatory stroll down history lane, showing how old Hollywood was dominated by a studio system that maintained control on all aspects of publicity. The studio bosses chose how stars were depicted in the media - even in early scandal-rags such as Confidential. And the media toed the line.

Mazur is right when he points out that there's been a near-total loss of civility in our culture: Politicians and pundits yell like children on TV while photographers scale walls to shoot celebrities' children (Parker is incensed that her kids are fodder for the rags) or race after their sports cars.

It's a dangerous situation, as was graphically and tragically illustrated late last year with the death of Los Angeles photog Chris Guerra. He was hit by a car while shooting Justin Bieber's car. (The Canadian singer wasn't even in the Ferrari at the time.)

Mazur, who is co-founder of online celeb photo clearing house WireImage (now run by Getty Images), takes pains to distance himself from the paparazzi, noting that he attends carpet events only when invited. And invited he is, backstage, to hotel rooms and celebrity houses. The irony surely is not lost on the filmmaker: It's probably because of his own fame and status as a celeb photographer that he could get so many stars to appear in the film.

$ellebrity makes a number of interesting points about how the celebrity machine dehumanizes its subjects, reducing celebrities to objects to be bought and sold. It discusses the devaluation of newsgathering in the age of TMZ. Gossip writing has debased serious journalism, the film asserts, infecting how news is gathered and reported.

But $ellebrity misses when it comes to the larger question of how celebrity discourse has affected the rest of our culture. It doesn't take Noam Chomsky to point out that celebrity news is the latest in a long line of cultural distractions that colonize attention better directed at social and political problems.

Mazur's film makes a valiant attempt to offer a critique of the cultural wounds inflicted by celeb culture, but ends up being part of that very culture.

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