The metaphor of the Golden Buddha is a humorous bit of Hollywood lore. Lew Hunter passes it along in his classic Screenwriting 434 (Revised ed., 2004). In a nutshell, it teaches the lesson that every screenplay is, in essence, a pile of crap. It’s how the writer molds, crafts, and adorns that lump that matters. Artistry determines whether s/he can transform it into a thing of beauty like a golden statue of the Buddha.
Applied to The Neon Demon, Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2016 slow-burn horror-thriller, the Golden Buddha metaphor is apt. From the standpoint of form and style, it is a well-made film, beautiful to watch. In other words, Refn has applied the golden paint to his Buddha with skill. As a story, the movie is a rather thin and clichéd tale. In other words, the statue’s gilding does not hide the material from which its maker has created it.