Monday, 10 September 2012

TV: Louis Theroux - Twilight of the Porn Stars review

In 1997, Louis Theroux made a documentary, as part of his Weird Weekends series, about the porn industry in America. In typical Theroux fashion, he focused on some of the quirkier sides of the industry; focusing, in particular, on the often ignored male “performers”. The documentary contrasted the macho fantasy of a male performer getting paid to have sex with countless beautiful women, with the physical and emotional costs that such work demands.

Fifteen years on, Theroux returned to Southern California to follow-up on his previous documentary, and investigate to what extent the proliferation of internet porn over the last decade has affected the industry. From the outset, we saw that the evolution of digital technology had hit porn producers hard. With a plethora of free pornography only a Google search away, it is perhaps no wonder that the adult DVD market has been on a sharp decline over the past decade. In an industry that could pretty much guarantee work for anyone willing to perform when Theroux last dipped into the industry; today, Theroux finds an industry where the demands on performers are more extreme, and the compensation, both in terms of hard cash and stability, has drastically diminished.

The mood of the documentary was in stark contrast to its earlier counterpart: the positivity and excitement of its subjects being replaced by cynicism, caginess, and defeatism. Of course, there were still some of those great ironic moments that make Theroux’s earlier documentaries so engaging. There was, for example, a moment when on the set of a porn shoot, where Theroux is stood intently watching two inexperienced performers, erm, perform, where the director casually asks the girl to groan in a “less porno” fashion. After the scene, the two performers seem at ease with each other, and as Louis leaves they are frolicking flirtatiously with each other, which Theroux observes is like “courtship in reverse – starting with sex and end up as something like friends.” There were quite revealing moments too: a female agent, when asked if she warned her potential clients about the physical and psychological dangers of the porn industry, said “no, they’d be out the door” and added that she was in the business of promoting porn, not scaring people away. When asked if she’d be happy if her own daughter was in the industry, she answered “I wouldn’t want to be the mother of a whore.”

Louis met a female performer who had planned out her career in porn, with the aim of retiring after seven years. She specialised in extreme porn in an effort to make a name for herself and win industry awards so that she could demand more money for her scenes. Her ambitions were somewhat complicated by the fact that she lived with her long-term boyfriend who wasn’t involved in the industry. It was obvious to anyone watching how conflicted he was by his girlfriend’s career choice: he clearly enjoyed the money and the lifestyle that the money provided, but the emotional strain was evident. There was a point where his girlfriend was offered a scene involving six men, which he did not want her to do. The girlfriend gave a lecture about how doing these scenes pay for vacations and videogames, and that the boyfriend should have nothing to complain about. Suffice to say, she accepted the scene.

Tommy Gun, a star of over a thousand porn films, believed that he had paid too high a price for the financial rewards that the industry provided, and felt that being an adult star had irreversibly damaged his capacity to love and be intimate – he came across as being so lonely, it was heartbreaking.

During Theroux's efforts to track down some of the subjects of his 1997 documentary, the darker side of the industry came to light. The fate of performer Jon Dough was particularly tragic: he committed suicide in 2007 as a result of dwindling returns and drug addiction.

Over the past few years, Theroux has moved away from being the central character of his documentaries and has tended to let the subjects speak for themselves. In taking more of a backseat, the wicked and playful humour that made his Weird Weekends so fascinating to watch has gone by the wayside, and his tongue has clearly dislodged itself from his cheek. Followers of Theroux’s other work will know that many of his recent documentaries have been incredibly thought-provoking and insightful. Twilight of the Porn Stars suffers because Theroux tried to awkwardly straddle the quirky and the serious.


This article was originally published on artfist.org.

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