It’s one of the biggest industries and exports in the US and yet most people know almost nothing about it. And the people who know, maybe are not that ready to admit they know. Of course I am talking about porn. Few people consider that the relative availability of cheap and decent video production equipment that has led to the surplus of indie films and increased access to audiences works much the same in the porn industry. In fact, because the audience rarely cares much about production value, just about anybody can compete with ‘the valley’ and Vivid Video and all the most famous porn producers. Porn has gone from a two-hour full video trip to the adult book store industry to a by-the-clip download from the comfort (and anonymity) of your own home. Even more immediate, Web Cam Girls interact directly with fans live, waiting for paid requests and putting on shows.
Produced by Rashida Jones, of Parks and Rec fame, the film follows a group of 18-25 year olds who are entering the porn industry, usually through intentionally obscure ads on Craigslist promising travel and money. Although the film is clear in their concern, especially the barest laws protecting those in the amateur porn industry such as that you just have to prove you are 18, the film never gets too preachy. Bauer and Gradus let their subjects do most of the work for them, as they explain their reasons for getting into this world (‘I do it anyway, so why not get paid?’) and enjoy what they think of as empowerment.
Eventually the film begins to center on Tressa, a New Braunfels former high school cheerleader, who comes from a fairly supportive home and has a boyfriend who (not surprisingly) begs her to give up her ‘day job.’ Tressa is very open on camera, and invites the filmmakers into her home as she admits what she is doing to her mother, and later her father. Her honesty is emblematic of the film that doesn’t hide much about the harrowing truth of this world from its audience, despite keeping any X-rated footage off screen and the nudity fairly understated.
The darkest subject, the sub-sub genre of amateur abuse porn, intentionally degrading and much more potentially physically dangerous, is duly disturbing and the one section of the film that the filmmaker takes a direct stance. Even the girl’s discussions and fears before or after a shoot of this nature support the universal issues with it. In general however, the film is not anti-porn, it’s just anti-this as a lifestyle choice for most of these girls, many of whom are getting into it with a misconception of what they will take out of it.
Debby Herbenick and Bryant Paul of the Kinsey institute support the film with factual data about the industry and the pervasiveness of porn in modern society. As a narrative documentary, HOT GIRLS WANTED benefits from a strong central subject who undergoes a real change during the film. By the end, the audience is rooting for Tressa to turn her life in a new direction and hold on to her incredibly understanding boyfriend Kendall. Unfortunately, very few of the other girls are given more than cursory screen time, and all basically say the same thing, so they sort of fade into the background.
Documentary subjects are always the luck of the draw when you turn the camera on, you never know who is going to be compelling on screen. I wished the directors had spent a bit more time with some of the other girls whose own life might have been equally intriguing, even if it did not necessarily fit into the obvious drive of what they wanted to say with the film.
I was especially curious about the 25-year-old actress, who is now playing ‘MILF’ roles, who had left and come back to the industry several times. In fact, the most intriguing character in the whole film might have been Riley, the 23-year-old male ‘Talent Agent’ who works out of a five bedroom home in Orlando where the girls stay as he drives them to and from gigs. Riley is unapologetically open with the filmmakers, and the girls. He tells them right off the bat they probably only have about three months to establish themselves here, and then they will have to move on to other markets, something the girls basically ignore.
He doesn’t come off as a bad person, but he is certainly the product of opportunity, and he knows it. At times I wished the film was about him, because he is the one positioned to be able to reflect on the industry as a whole, rather than just one individual’s individual experience. Still his frankness is a real boon for the filmmakers, it’s basically shocking that he opened his door to them and introduced him to all ‘his girls’ as he calls them. There literally would be no movie without him. Despite my issues with the film, HOT GIRLS WANTED is a worthwhile peek into a world in which we seldom get access, with a positive ending and hopefully serves as a positive force for change.
Dunne’s documentary focuses not on the industry or the technology as much as on the girls themselves. With at least a dozen girls taking part in the film, the viewer gets to hear a diversity of stories as to why and how they took up the webcam, and how they view their job. The filming style offers long intimate glimpse of the cam girlz doing their thing for their audience. It never gets into anything x-rated, but there is a lot of nudity. Actually, one of the most surprising elements of the film is how little sex there is (at least in what we as the audience are privy to). Most of the interactions involve mild flirtation, or dancing, or just plain conversation.
One girl astutely points out that guys come to her because they have trouble talking to people in the real world, and she reinforces that, because the more time he spends talking to her, the less time he spends trying to talk to people in the real world. The film is well-shot, and the girls are very comfortable with the camera, willing to talk as openly with Dunne as they do online, including one older-woman who started cam-ing after her husband died because she needed a sexual outlet.
The problem with CAM GIRLZ is, as candid as it is, it actually says very little. All the girls are different, and yet no one’s experience seems very different from anyone else’s. Everyone seems to be having a great time, making lots of money and feeling empowered. That may be true, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting documentary. There is very little conflict at all, and unless you live in a bubble and you don’t know that such a thing as a web cam exists, there is no new information. The film lacks the scientific or sociological context of, just as it also lacks the drive for change. Apparently being a cam girl is great, and everyone should do it. I don’t know what else I was supposed to take away from the film. There is one moment where one of the girls mentions a guy leaving his wife because he wants to be with her… that’s what I’m interested in. Or stories where the cam-ing is getting in the way of relationships for the girls. And it all seems pretty vanilla.
There are a lot of cam-sites that specialize in darker and more fetish-y interactions, like domination or humiliation sites or role-play, and none of that is in the film. At least that would maybe have offered a performer with a slightly different view, since they are doing more acting than someone just having a conversation. No one interviewed in the film goes through any change during the course of it, so it is relatively unstructured without much reason behind when we cut from one girl to the next. Instead of coming off as preachy or judgmental as HOT GIRLS WANTED sometimes does, CAM GIRLZ actually seems disengaged. It is just a series of interviews with different girls.
I still don’t really know much about how they make money, and how it affects their lives other than the influx of money. They all say they feel empowered, but so did the girls in HOT GIRLS WANTED. Clearly this is safer as an occupation, and somewhat more driven by the performer, but is it totally? Was there no other viewpoint available? Sean Dunne made his feature-film-directing debut with OXYANA, a portrait of a small coal-mining town caught in the grips of the Oxycontin epidemic. OXYANA premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013 where Dunne was awarded Best New Documentary Director and received a Special Jury Mention for Best Documentary. Oxyana is a slice of life film that had a bit of drive to it, and a great deal of conflict.
Unfortunately, CAM GIRLZ does not. However, if you want to meet some interesting girls and get a tease of the industry, it is an easy watch, with high production value, and maybe will encourage more people to look closer at the industry. CAM GIRLZ just debuted on Vimeo on Demand and is also available on the website camgirlzdoc.com.
It is exciting to see reputable filmmakers dive into the world of amateur porn and report back. Both HOT GIRLS WANTED and CAM GIRLZ have their issues. HOT GIRLS WANTED is a little too focused on one person’s experience to really be an honest look at the industry, and it feels like the filmmakers found what they were looking for when they started, so it comes off a bit forced and disingenuous. CAM GIRLZ lacks any direction whatsoever, leaving the viewer with pleasant anecdotal case studies, left unstudied, as well as suffering from having no dissenting views from any of the subjects. I am hoping the relative mainstream availability of these films means we will get more filmmakers mining the industry for material, and who can hopefully present something substantial and unbiased. CAM GIRLZ is available now, HOT GIRLS WANTED should be available on Netflix sometime in 2015.