Review: ‘Pleasure’ (2021), starring Sofia Kappel

May 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sofia Kappel and Xander Corvus in “Pleasure” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Pleasure” (2021)

Directed by Ninja Thyberg

Some language in Swedish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2018 in the Los Angeles area, the dramatic film “Pleasure” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Swedish immigrant, who is 19 years old, moves to Los Angeles to become a porn star, and she finds out how far she’s willing to go to fulfill that goal.

Culture Audience: “Pleasure” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in very adult-oriented and voyeuristic-styled stories about people obsessed with pursuing fame and fortune.

Sofia Kappel and Zelda Morrison (also known as Revika Reustle) in “Pleasure” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Pleasure” takes a raw and realistic look at what women who want to be porn stars have to do to “make it” in adult entertainment. The movie’s ironic title comes from showing that the business of pleasure comes at a cost of emotional pain to the performers. Needless to say, “Pleasure” is not a movie for people who are easily offended by explicit sexual content or who are too young for this subject matter. Writer/director Ninja Thyberg makes a bold and uncompromising feature-film debut with “Pleasure,” which doesn’t sugarcoat the damage (sometimes self-inflicted) caused by being exploited in the porn industry. “Pleasure” made the rounds at some film festivals in 2021, including the Sundance Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the Cannes Film Festival and AFI Fest.

Thyberg (who co-wrote the “Pleasure” screenplay with Peter Modestij) is Swedish, and so is the protagonist of “Pleasure”: a 19-year-old woman whose porn name is Bella Cherry (played by Sofia Kappel), but her real name is Linnéa. Only a few people in the story know Bella’s real name. She wants everyone in her porn life to call her Bella, because she is fixated on reinventing herself as a porn star. “Pleasure,” which takes place over the course of less than six months, is about Bella’s attempts to accomplish that goal.

Viewers will find out very little about Bella’s life before she moved to Los Angeles. The fact that Thyberg and Bella are both Swedish is an interesting creative choice, because it makes Bella’s story not only a story about an aspiring porn actress but also an immigrant story. In either case, Bella is an outsider who strives to be accepted into a culture where people have been in the culture a lot longer than she has. Kappel, who is also Swedish, makes a memorable feature-film debut in her role as Bella. Kappel’s performance is what keeps “Pleasure” interesting because of how authentically she portrays all the emotions that Bella goes through in the movie.

The movie opens with Bella being questioned at an airport customs area in the United States, where she is asked if she’s visiting for business or pleasure. Based on the title of this movie, it’s easy to predict Bella’s answer. Viewers later find out that Bella has lied to her mother about why she’s going to Los Angeles. She’s told her mother that her trip is because she got an internship at a sponsoring company whose industry is not mentioned in the movie. If Bella has any other family members, then they’re not mentioned in the movie either.

Bella’s mother has no idea that Bella actually financed the trip herself with one purpose in mind: to become a porn star and to get a work visa so that she can stay in America. Bella is living in a non-descript, somewhat shabby place that’s called a house for models, but the four or five female models who live there are really actresses in adult entertainment. Most are in their 20s, but one woman is over the age of 30.

One of these housemates is Joy (played by Zelda Morrison, also known Revika Reustle), who is in her 20s. Joy becomes Bella’s closest friend in Los Angeles. At one point, Joy and Bella tell each other their real first names and a little bit more of their backgrounds. Joy’s real name is Katie, and she’s originally from Florida.

Joy also cheerfully describes herself this way: “I do everything. I’m a whore.” Very little is revealed about Joy’s background, except she mentions that most people in her life have disappointed her or betrayed her. Joy is looking for a true friend in Bella, who likes Joy too, but Bella is more guarded about how close she wants to be to anyone else in the house.

Another woman in the house is a longtime porn actress named Ashley (played by Dana DeArmond), who is in her late 30s or early 40s. Ashley is very aware that she’s in an age group where women become less employable in porn, so she has to start thinking about other ways to make money. Another housemate is named Kimberly (played by Kendra Spade), who doesn’t say much and has a small role in the movie. On the night of Ashley’s birthday, Ashley and the other women in the house celebrate by getting drunk, smoking some marijuana, and heading out to a private party attended by other people in the adult entertainment industry.

“Pleasure” skips over a lot of details about what happened to Bella from the time that she arrived at the airport in Los Angeles to the time she does her first sex scene in a porn movie. It’s never shown how Bella ended up living in the house, which is occupied by women (including Bella), who all have the same agent. His name is Mike (played by Jason Toler), who actually is not a predator but who is someone who treats his clients with a decent amount of respect. However, as Bella later finds out, Mike has no use for clients who are hopelessly naïve about the type of work required in porn. Mike also doesn’t like it when people make promises that they can’t keep.

Bella’s first sex scene in a porn movie (which is filmed at a house) shows how she has a mixture of real and false confidence in how she wants to do this work. Before she starts filming the scene, she does a required video interview with a “jack of all trades” porn worker named Bear (played by Chris Cock), who acts as a camera operator, human resources supervisor and a porn actor—sometimes all on the same day. Bear is an easygoing person who has a secret that Bella finds out later in the movie. Bear’s secret isn’t shocking, but it’s surprising to Bella.

In the video interview, which is done for legal reasons, Bella has to show proof that she’s at least 18 years old by showing her ID. She says she was born on April 27, 1999, and she holds that day’s newspaper up to prove the date that she made this video. The video interview also includes Bella consenting to whatever she ends up doing on camera. In addition, she has to sign release forms and other legal paperwork related to making this porn movie. She does all of these procedures with self-assurance and no hesitation.

Even though Bella claims that her biggest goal in life is to be a porn star, she gets nervous and scared before her first sex scene, where she will be performing different sex acts with a flabby man named Brian (played by John Strong), who appears to be in his late 40s to early 50s. It’s one of many examples of “Pleasure” showing the double standard in the physical appearances of men and women performers who get hired to do porn movies. Unless the porn movie is about a specific fetish for big women, the women in professional porn movies are rarely allowed to be pudgy, overweight or over the age of 50, while men are allowed to be a variety of ages and body types.

Sensing her hesitation, the director Axel Braun (playing a version of himself) tells Bella that she has “stage fright.” Bella says, “I feel so stupid.” The director then tells her, “You just overcome it and push past it. But no pressure.” He then adds to convince her to do the scene: “I need you to be a little shy,” since the scene is about a virginal young woman being “seduced” by an older man.

After Bella finishes her scenes in the movie, she proudly takes photos of herself with semen all over her face and posts the photos on her social media, to announce to the world that she is now officially a porn actress. Later, Bella relaxes near the house swimming pool with Bear and Axel. She asks the director for advice on how to become a successful porn star. He tells her, “Just look like you’re enjoying yourself.”

Later, when Bear gives her a car ride, he asks her why she moved all the way from Sweden to become a porn star. Bella replies: “I’m out here because I just want to fuck. And Swedes, they just suck. They’re boring. They enjoy feeling sorry for themselves.”

Despite this display of arrogance, Bella still shows how young and naïve she is when she expresses surprise after Bear (who is African American) tells her that interracial sex scenes in porn are considered more taboo and more “deviant” than almost any other sex acts. When Bella tells Bear that this attitude sounds racist, he bluntly tells her that it is, but it’s reality. Bella says that if the opportunity came up, she wouldn’t mind doing a sex scene with Bear, who tells her that he will be there for her if she ever needs advice or help.

In an early scene in the movie, Bella also says that she’s open to any sex with a man or a woman on camera, except for anal sex. It’s another an example of how clueless Bella is if she thinks she can become a major porn star without doing anal sex on camera. It’s not long before she finds out that she’ll have to willingly change her “no anal sex on camera” rule if she wants to be a porn star.

The most sought-after porn agent in Los Angeles County is a sleazy-looking, middle-aged schlump named Mark Spiegler, playing a version of himself. “Pleasure” has several cast members who are in the adult entertainment industry in real life, including Mick Blue, Xander Corvus, Chanel Preston, Small Hands, Abella Danger and Ryan Mclane. Some are playing versions of themselves with the same names, while others are playing fictional characters with different names. It’s repeated several times in “Pleasure” that the actresses who work for Mark, who are often called Mark Spiegler Girls, are among the highest-paid in porn, because they are willing to do extreme sex acts on camera.

It should come as no surprise that Bella and Joy want Mark to be their agent. On the night of Ashley’s birthday, the women housemates head to a private party at a mansion, where they look on enviously outside the party, as Mark and his entourage are treated like porn royalty. Bella sees Bear outside as he’s about to go inside the mansion. Bella approaches Bear with a hug and a smile, and she uses him to gain admission, while leaving her housemates outside to figure out on their own how to get into the party. It’s the first sign that Bella will place her own needs above loyalty to any of her friends.

The other housemates end up getting access to the party, which has a special roped-off section reserved just for Mark and his entourage. Once inside the party, Joy and Bella try to figure out a way to get access to Mark. But in the meantime, Joy (who’s very drunk) gets somewhat giddy and star-struck when she sees a good-looking porn star named Caesar (played by Lance Hart), whom she finds very attractive.

Not long after eying Caesar from afar, Joy goes up to Caesar (who is talking in a group of people), and tries to flirt with him, but he calls her “trashy” and essentially dismisses her. An insulted Joy yells at Caesar and then pushes Caesar into a nearby pool. Joy, Bella and the rest of the housemates are kicked out of the party. There are repercussions to this incident that are shown later in the movie.

Joy has a quick temper, but she also has a very generous side, such as being willing to help the less-experienced Bella in many aspects of adult entertainment, including how to pose in photo shoots. At one such photo shoot, Joy and Bella meet a porn model/actress named Ava (played by Evelyn Claire), who is as standoffish as she is pretty. Ava has this snooty response when Joy tries to strike up a friendly conversation with her: “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to work.” Ava also plays a big role in a major turning point in Bella’s journey in the porn industry.

People often hear that in the porn industry, female entertainers are generally paid more than male entertainers. But what “Pleasure” shows in no uncertain terms is that women in porn are degraded on camera much more than men in porn. Men are also usually the people in control of directing and owning the porn content. And the business owners (who are almost always men) of porn are really the ones who profit the most from porn. In other words, as much as some women can claim that doing porn is “empowering” for women, the reality is that porn is mainly controlled and dominated by men, who have most of the power in porn.

During the course of Bella’s experiences in porn, almost all the directors, crew members and photographers who tell her what to do are men. If there are any female crew members on the movie set or photo shoot, they have stereotypical non-supervisor roles of doing hair and makeup. On the rare occasion that Bella works with a female director (Aiden Starr, playing a version of herself), “Pleasure” shows how differently Bella is treated on the set of a porn movie directed by a woman. The process is more collaborative, and more care is taken to check in on Bella’s safety and what she’s willing or not willing to do on camera.

Most of all, “Pleasure” isn’t so much about the sex acts that are done in the movie. It’s about how blind ambition can chip away at someone’s self-worth and soul in an all-consuming quest for fame. At one point, Bella becomes so desperate, she offers to do porn for free.

There are moments in “Pleasure” when Bella trusts her instincts and knows that she’s doing things that she doesn’t really want to do in these porn movies, but she’s made to feel guilty by people telling her in various ways that if she hesitates, she’s being “unprofessional” and “immature” and “not ready” to be a porn star. And if she hesitates, she’s also put on a guilt trip (usually by the male director) about how her hesitation can cost everyone money on this movie production. Bella begins to experience more self-doubt, which further fuels any insecurities she already had.

At the same time, “Pleasure” doesn’t let Bella off the hook either, because she often brags to people that she’ll do whatever it takes to become a porn star. But when she’s expected to do “whatever it takes,” she sometimes backtracks. And that should be her right. However, “Pleasure” shows (without passing judgment) that a lot of people who think they can handle doing porn (and the repercussions that come with it) really are not emotionally equipped to handle it at all. Bella changes her mind about a lot of her “boundaries,” which is realistic for anyone who wants to become a porn star as badly as she does.

People who pay attention and notice if a movie has a “male gaze” or “female gaze” will notice that “Pleasure” can be considered a “female gaze” film. Full-frontal female nudity in “Pleasure” is rarely shown in the sex scenes, but male full-frontal nudity is shown more often. Female genitals are shown in the context of things other than sex, such as when Bella is shaving her vagina. The movie’s sex scenes show suggestions of what’s happening, but not actual penetration.

And although the scenes involving degradation and exploitation will be very difficult to watch for many viewers, “Pleasure” ultimately shows that in every situation, Bella does have the option to stop. This isn’t rape, forced prostitution or sex trafficking, but “Pleasure” shows how dangerously close the porn industry comes to taking away consent when pressuring people into doing things they feel hesitant about doing.

As realistic as “Pleasure” is in many aspects, the movie is a not a comprehensively accurate movie in how it depicts the porn industry. For example, issues regarding sexually transmitted diseases and rampant drug/alcohol abuse are barely mentioned or not mentioned at all. In real life, porn performers who do sex acts with people on camera are quick to tell people that they regularly get tested for STDs before being allowed to work in professional porn jobs. None of this STD testing is shown or mentioned in “Pleasure.” And neither is the porn occupational hazard of addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Bella is also a blank slate when it comes to her motivations in becoming a porn star. The only slight insight that the movie shows is when an emotionally bruised Bella has a phone conversation with her mother. In this conversation, Bella seems to want to go back to Sweden, without telling her mother the real reason why.

Bella tries to blame it on the people in Los Angeles, but her mother (voiced by Eva Melander) comments that Bella needs to face whatever problems she’s having in Los Angeles, because there will be difficult people no matter where she lives. Bella’s mother also mentions that Bella had similar complaints about the people in Sweden. This conversation reveals that Bella thought she’d be happier if she reinvented herself in another country, but she’s finding out that she can’t find happiness in superficial ways if she’s still unhappy within herself.

“Pleasure” is not going to be enjoyed by people who expect morality preaching about porn. Some viewers might also be disappointed if they expect “Pleasure” to have a very clear and definable ending. Bella’s ambivalence and contradictions about how far she’s willing to go are very realistic of people who do porn but who do not have a strong sense of who they really are. Porn might be an extremely risky way to find fame, but “Pleasure” shows how a fame-chasing mindset in any profession can lead to cutthroat acts of exploitation and degradation.

Neon released “Pleasure” in select U.S. cinemas on May 13, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on June 21, 2022. “Pleasure” was released in Sweden in 2021.

Review: ‘X’ (2022), starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi

March 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mia Goth in “X” (Photo by Christopher Moss/A24)

“X” (2022)

Directed by Ti West

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in 1979, the horror film “X” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with one Latina and two African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Six people go to a rented farm to make a porn movie, but the elderly spouses who own the farm show their violent disapproval. 

Culture Audience: “X” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of writer/director Ti West and horror flicks that skillfully blend horror with satirical comedy.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Owen Campbell, Brittany Snow, Mia Goth, Scott Mescudi and Jenna Ortega in “X” (Photo by Christopher Moss/A24)

“X” is a horror film that doesn’t break any new ground, but this “slow burn” movie delivers some gruesome terror with touches of social satire that can bring some laughs. Written and directed by horror master Ti West, “X” is sure to count as one of his best movies. Will “X” be considered an iconic movie that influences countless other horror films? No. However, “X” takes a simple concept that other slasher movies mishandle and makes it something that horror fans can thoroughly enjoy, as long as people can tolerate watching some bloody violence that can be nauseating to some viewers.

“X” had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. It’s fitting that the movie premiered in Texas, since the story takes place mostly in a rural and unnamed part of Texas. (“X” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) In “X,” the year is 1979, when porn movies made in the U.S. got an “X” rating for adults-only content. Six people in the adult film industry are going on a road trip to an isolated farm that the producer has rented, in order to make a porn film called “The Farmer’s Daughter.” This porn movie is a very low-budget film with only one camera.

The six people on this fateful trip are:

  • Wayne Gilroy (played by Martin Henderson), a brash, fast-talking middle-aged producer whose immediate goal in life is for “The Farmer’s Daughter” to be a blockbuster porn movie—or at least make a fraction of what “Debbie Does Dallas” made, so that Wayne can get out of debt.
  • Maxine Minx (played by Mia Goth), an up-and-coming actress who wants to be as famous as “Wonder Woman” TV star Lynda Carter. Off camera, Maxine (who’s in her 20s) is Wayne’s lover (he left his wife for her), and Wayne has promised to make Maxine a star. Maxine also has a cocaine habit, since she’s seen snorting coke several times in the movie.
  • Bobby-Lynne Parker (played by Brittany Snow), an experienced porn actress in her 30s, who styles her physical appearance like Marilyn Monroe, and who likes to think of herself as the reigning Southern belle of porn.
  • Jackson Hole (played by Scott Mescudi), the porn name of a well-endowed actor in his 30s who is the only male cast member doing the porn scenes in “The Farmer’s Daughter.” Bobby-Lynne and Jackson are also sex partners off-camera, in a “friends with benefits” relationship.
  • RJ Nichols (played by Owen Campbell), the director of “The Farmer’s Daughter.” RJ, who’s in his late 20s, likes to think that the porn movies he directs are cinematic art.
  • Lorraine Day (played by Jenna Ortega), RJ’s girlfriend, a “jack of all trades” crew member who is essentially RJ’s assistant. Lorraine is in her late teens or early 20s and is relatively new to the adult film industry. She’s eager to learn all that she can about filmmaking.

The movie’s opening scene shows viewers that this porn movie shoot will result in a massacre, since police officers arrive at the farm and see several bloody and mutilated dead bodies. The movie circles back to this crime scene at the end of the film. The rest of “X” shows what happened 24 hours earlier, leading up to the massacre.

It takes a while for “X” to get going, since the first half of the movie is about the road trip, arriving at the farm, and filming the sex scenes. The farm is owned by an elderly couple named Howard (played by Stephen Ure), nicknamed Howie, and his wife Pearl (also played by Goth), who have been married to each other for decades. Ure and Goth wear balding hair pieces and prosthetic makeup that give creepy and decrepit physical appearances to Howard and Pearl. Goth gives an absolutely maniacal performance as Pearl, who is much more disturbed and volatile than Howard.

Howard is a cantankerous veteran of World War I and World War II. The first thing that Howard does when he sees Wayne is pull a gun on him, until Wayne reminds Howard that he’s the movie producer who’s renting the farm for a film shoot. Wayne doesn’t tell this farm couple that this film shoot is for a porn movie, but Howard and Pearl inevitably find out because they’re on the property during this film shoot.

Pearl is starved for affection from her husband. When she tries to make amorous advances on Howard, he pushes her away and mentions his heart condition when he says, “You know I can’t. My heart.” Pearl is a former dancer who sees a lot of younger herself in Maxine and instantly fixates on Maxine. Pearl is also a voyeur, so it should come as no surprise that Pearl ends up watching one of the sex scenes that’s being filmed in the barn. And when she finds out that a porn movie is being made on her property, all hell breaks loose.

Before the murder and mayhem begin, “X” makes some sly commentary on how gender affects perceptions and judgments of people’s involvement in porn. This small cast and crew of “The Farmer’s Daughter” are a microcosm of larger issues in the adult film industry: Men are usually in charge and usually make the business decisions. The women are usually expected to follow orders.

Women in adult entertainment also get more of society’s stigma and degradation, compared to men in adult entertainment. A woman is much more likely than a man to be called a “whore” for doing porn. This derogatory name-calling happens in a scene in “X,” even though for “The Farmer’s Daughter” porn movie, a man is just as much of a participant in the sex scenes as the women. There’s a moment in the movie where one of the women flips the proverbial script and makes a decision that greatly upsets one of the men.

And because there are three couples on this trip, their dynamics also represent the types of relationships that can occur in the adult film industry. Wayne and Maxine represent a stereotypical older filmmaker who hooks up with a young actress and tells her a lot of big talk about making her a star. Bobby-Lynne and Jackson are swingers who don’t have any commitment in their relationship and don’t want to be bound by traditional sexual expectations. RJ and Lorraine represent people who are in the porn industry only to get filmmaking experience so that they can move on to mainstream movies.

“X” has the expected sex scenes, but there are also scenes that show the type of camaraderie that can happen during a film production. On their first night after filming scenes from “The Farmer’s Daughter,” the cast and crew hang out and have some drinks together. Bobby-Lynne leads a toast where she says, “Here’s to the perverts who’ve been paying our bills for years!”

After this toast, Bobby-Lynne sings Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” while Jackson plays acoustic guitar. Snow’s performance of “Landslide” is very good and one of the unexpected highlights in this horror film. This laid-back party scene is effective in showing how the people in this group have no idea what’s in store for them.

“X” has a few nods to 1970s horror classics, such as 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and 1978’s “Halloween.” The comparisons to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” are obvious. In “X,” Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 song “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” song is played during a pivotal scene. Horror aficionados know that “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was also prominently featured in 1978’s “Halloween.”

Even though the first half of “X” doesn’t have any real terror, “X” still manages to keep viewers on edge over what might happen. There’s no real mystery of who the villains are, because this is a slasher flick that clearly forecasts who will be the perpetrators of the violence. Although the ideas in “X” aren’t very original, they’re still filmed in very suspenseful ways. And there’s an interesting twist/reveal toward the end of the film. Ultimately, “X” doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a worthy tribute to retro slasher films that makes “X” memorable in its own right.

A24 will release “X” in U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD is April 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys,’ starring DeAngelo Jackson, Dante Colle, Pierce Paris, Elijah Wilde, Jack Loft, Alter Sin and Alex Lecomte

July 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

DeAngelo Jackson in “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” (Photo courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures)

“Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” 

Directed by Edward James “EJ”

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, Atlanta, New York City, Brazil and Spain, the documentary “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” features a predominantly white group of men (with one African American and one Latino) who work in adult entertainment, doing non-sexual videoconference interviews about how their lives have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Culture Clash: Most of the men talk about how they deal with online haters, crazy fans and misperceptions about men who do gay porn for a living.

Culture Audience: Fans of these adult entertainers are obviously the target audience of “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys,” but the documentary might also appeal to people who are curious about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people who work in porn. 

Dante Colle in “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” (Photo courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures)

The first thing that people need to know about the documentary “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” is that it has absolutely no sexual activity and no frontal nudity. “Pornstar Pandemic,” although it has a very catchy title, is basically a very tame interview documentary where male adult-film performers (some more famous than others) are shown in friendly videoconference calls talking about how they’re handling the coronavirus pandemic since the pandemic shut down filming of anything where social distancing is not possible. The interviewees, who do mostly gay porn, also give tours of their homes and show some of their socially distant outdoor activities. The only nudity in the film is when one of the porn stars (Dante Colle) is seen taking a shower and his backside is briefly shown.

If that’s not sexually interesting enough for viewers, there are plenty of places online to see these performers doing sexual activities on camera. But if you’re curious to see what their personalities and lives are like when they’re in semi-quarantine, then “Pornstar Pandemic” might be worth checking out if you know that this movie about porn stars doesn’t have any porn in it.

However, the running time for the movie is a little too long (132 minutes), and boredom might set in quickly for people who are expecting a lot of raunchy talk. There’s hardly anything in the documentary that would be considered sexuality explicit dialogue. It’s a very mainstream, non-pornographic film, but that doesn’t mean the movie is appropriate for everyone.

Longtime adult-film director/producer Edward James “EJ” directed “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” as his first mainstream documentary feature. Most of the job is in the editing, because the movie is really just a series of videoconference segments, mostly moderated by adult-film performers Alter Sin (who’s from Spain), Alex Lecomte (from Brazil) and Jack Loft (from the United States).

The movie begins with Sin and Lecomte interviewing Loft at the partially furnished home that Loft shares in Atlanta with his manager, who is not interviewed or seen in the movie. Loft, Sin and Lecomte together then do individual interviews with Colle, Pierce Paris, Elijah Wilde and DeAngelo Jackson. And then, at the end, EJ (who is not seen on camera) interviews Loft, Colle, Paris, Wilde and Jackson. All of them say that their families and friends know that they do porn for a living. They also say that cyberbullying and criticism are unavoidable on social media, and it’s best not to fall into the trap of believing all the harsh things that people say.

In this documentary, Loft is one of the newcomers to porn. He talks about how the coronavirus pandemic shutdown happened soon after he filmed just one porn scene, after moving to Atlanta from a small town in Iowa. Loft (who looks like he’s in his early 20s, and whose physical appearance would put him in the “twink” category) says of his choice to do porn for a living: “I’ve never been the type of person who thinks sex work or pornography was something to be ashamed of.” He adds that “every gay guy” he knows is on Only Fans and/or watches porn.

Loft also says that his family and friends know about his decision to do porn, and they’re okay with it. He believes that for people in his generation (Generation Z), taking naked selfie photos and making consensual sex videos are less taboo than it is for previous generations. He also believes that in the future, there won’t be as big of a stigma for this type of activity as there is now. “Ten years from now, there’s less of a chance of someone trying to use my adult films and my adult pictures against me. In 10 years, I hope it won’t be a big deal.”

This is where Loft shows a major blind spot when it comes to gender, because he doesn’t really seem to understand that when it comes to posing for pornographic photos or doing sex videos, men get a lot less negative reactions and society shaming for it than women do. Loft is also openly gay, so any videos of him having sex with a man wouldn’t be as shocking as it would be if he were a man who presented himself as straight in his personal life.

There are many variables in how porn stars’ sex work will affect their futures, but women who’ve done porn in the past definitely have a harder time overcoming the stigma that comes with it. For example, “Million Dollar Listing New York” reality star Fredrik Eklund, a real-estate agent who is openly gay, has freely admitted to making gay porn videos in his past. Would a woman in the same circumstances be given the opportunity to star in an internationally televised American reality show? At this time, realistically? No. The double standard is real, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Loft also says that he’s noticed that since the pandemic, people are spending more time online but also being more authentic with their feelings when they’re online. If he’s able to become a more well-known porn actor, he says his two biggest fears are that we won’t look good-enough on camera and that he’ll be misunderstood as disrespectful or inauthentic.

Just like the other performers interviewed in the documentary, Loft says he’s been focusing more on his online activities as a way to make money. And working and staying in shape is obviously a huge priority for all of the actors who are interviewed. It goes without saying that the pandemic doesn’t stop these performers from doing “solo” videos.

Colle (who lives in a small trailer in Malibu, California) says the pandemic has given him more time to work on content for his videos that people can access by subscription or pay-per-view. Colle, who says he doesn’t want to label his sexuality, comments that he’s lucky that his parents have been completely accepting of him doing porn. He also talks about the misconceptions that people have about men who enjoy having sex with men and women. Colle mentions that gay people can be just as prejudiced as straight people who think that sexuality means that you have to choose one gender to be attracted to sexually.

He also shares some stories about what some crazy fans will do to get him to notice them. He says that he uses his parents’ address as his mailing address, so they sometimes get some very kinky mail. Colle also mentions that because he learned from his parents to be smart about saving his money (maybe that’s why he lives frugally in a tiny trailer instead of a house or apartment), he says that he’s not financially panicking during the pandemic, unlike many people he knows who lost their incomes and are running out of money because of the pandemic.

Colle shows some of his workout routine. He also admits that since the pandemic, he doesn’t shower every day, and sometimes he’ll go up to three days without showering. And in case anyone cares, Colle has two very adorable French bulldogs, who make an appearance in his individual interview segment.

Speaking of cute pets, Paris (who lives in Los Angeles) shows two kittens that he’s fostering and plans to adopt. Paris says his hometown is Bozemon, Montana, where he used to be a farm worker. He opens up a little about his high-school days, by saying that he was sort of a “class clown” who got along with various cliques in his school.

And he says that the he’s had a “fetish” for anal sex ever since he first heard a gym teacher mention it in a high-school sex education class. Just like Colle, Paris says he’s open to having sex with men and women in his personal and professional lives, but on camera, Paris is mostly known for having sex with men.

Paris also says that he got inspired to do porn by a TV show (which he does not name) that had crazy sports stunts. He admits that his income has dropped because of the pandemic, but he’s doing more solo videos and his fans like to see his “naked workouts.” He adds, “That’s what’s keeping me busy and making me money.”

When asked how he prepares for doing a porn scene, Paris says that he’s found that he has to spend at least 45 minutes before doing a scene to get mentally and physically ready. He mentions that if he just nonchalantly shows up on the set without that preparation, it has a negative effect on his performance.

Wilde is fairly new to porn, compared to most of the others in this documentary. Currently living in New York City, he says in the documentary that he was born in Montreal but grew up in New York. He used to by a gym trainer as a day job, but due to the pandemic, he lost his gym job. Wilde also says that, as a former go-go dancer, he especially misses going to nightclubs, dancing, and being able to hug his friends.

DeAngelo Jackson, who identifies as gay and lives in Atlanta, is one of the veterans in this documentary’s group of performers. He’s been doing porn since 2008. He says that he lost his virginity in a porn scene, and he describes that experience as “traumatizing.” Unlike the other people interviewed in this documentary, Jackson says his strict and religious family has difficulty accepting that he does porn for a living.

His father was in the military, so Jackson says that he grew up as an “Army brat” in various countries and learned to appreciate different cultures. He also says that when he’s not performing, he’s an “introvert.” There’s a scene in the documentary of Jackson playing a video game wearing very skimpy brief underwear that leaves nothing to the imagination.

At the 2020 GayVN Awards (the Oscars of gay porn), Jackson became the first person of color to win the Best Actor award. He says he’s humbled by the prize, but he also understands that winning the award is something bigger than him, because it’s symbolic of breaking a racial barrier in the porn industry.

He also hopes the prize means that more people will look at black men in porn as not just a “fetish” but award-worthy actors. Wilde, who is also a person of color, mentions toward the end of the documentary that he hopes to follow in Jackson’s footsteps, but Wilde says that would just be happy to be nominated for any award.

When asked for his advice on what he would tell men who are new to porn, Jackson replies: “Know who you are,” because he’s seen too many young men in their late teens and early 20s get “lost” and overwhelmed in adult entertainment because they don’t have a strong sense of identity. Jackson also echoes what some of the other performers say in the documentary: Be professional and treat it like a regular job.

Except it’s not like a regular job. Some of the men interviewed in the film say that their parents and other family members express concerns that they will get HIV or AIDS in their line of work. This is an issue that seems to make porn actors very defensive, because porn actors say that the people they work with in porn are regularly tested for HIV and other STDs, and that it’s actually “safer” to do porn than to have sex with random people who aren’t tested.

One thing that all of these men have in common is that at the time of this filming this documentary, they didn’t talk about being in any committed relationships, past or present, although Colle says dating someone who also does porn is sometimes easier than dating someone who doesn’t do porn. And none of them admitted to having sex during the pandemic, although it’s kind of hard to believe that they’re all celibate during the pandemic. But based on what’s implied in the documentary, even without the pandemic, what they do for a living makes it challenging to have a long-term, committed relationship with a love partner.

Ultimately, “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” is a very simply made documentary that can serve as a time capsule of how some male porn stars were living during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic. (This movie was obviously filmed before June 2020, because director JR says in the documentary that movie production should return to normal by June 2020, but that ended up not happening.) People who are expecting sexually explicit content in the documentary will have to look elsewhere. This movie is really a series of interesting, but not particularly fascinating, conversations to show a more human side to some current and aspiring male porn stars.

Breaking Glass Pictures released “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” on DVD and digital on July 28, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Circus of Books’

May 3, 2019

by Carla Hay

Circus of Books
Rachel Mason with parents Barry and Karen Mason in “Circus of Books” (Photo by Gretchen Warthen)

“Circus of Books”

Directed by Rachel Mason

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

“Circus of Books” is a truly unique documentary that tells the behind-the-scenes story of Circus of Books, the Los Angeles-based company that got most of its profits through gay male pornography and operated multiple stores and a production company. Circus of Books—which had the same owners from 1982 until the business closed in February 2019—was literally a “mom and pop” operation, since the business was owned by married couple Karen and Barry Mason, who are the parents of three children. Their middle child, Rachel, directed this film to chronicle the history of Circus of Books and the last days before the business shut down.

Rachel takes the Werner Herzog/Michael Moore documentarian approach of being the narrator, on-camera interviewer and one of the stars of the movie. The documentary begins by showing the history of the bookstore before the Masons owned it. The LGBTQ activist Black Cat demonstration in 1967 in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood preceded the Stonewall demonstrations in New York City by two years, but both were important events in gay civil rights that had similarities, because both were sparked by LGBTQ people fighting back against police harassment and raids of gay nightclubs.

The Black Cat nightclub and the New Faces nightclub were part of the Los Angeles gay nightlife scene in the 1960s. New Faces would eventually become the gay bookstore Book Circus. When Book Circus went out of business, the Masons took it over and renamed the space Circus of Books, which carried a wide array of family-friendly inventory, but it was outsold by what was in the adult section of the store. So how did this straight Jewish couple end up in the gay porn business?

Karen, whom many people in the documentary describe as bossy and domineering, started off as a criminal-justice journalist, who worked for publications such as the Wall Street Journal (in the Chicago bureau) and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Barry, who’s described as gentle and laid-back, used to work at the University of California at Los Angeles’ film department in the mid-1960s, when the Doors members Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek were briefly students there, before the Doors became a world-famous rock band. Barry worked in special effects and had credits that included the original “Star Trek” TV series.

Barry applied his skills in special effects to invent dialysis equipment in the early years of his marriage to Karen. The couple then went into the business together to sell the equipment and were doing well financially. But then they made the mistake of selling the rights to the equipment, and they began to have financial hardships. It was during this challenging time in their marriage that Karen saw an ad seeking distributors for porn magazines. She answered the ad, thinking that it was a temporary way to make money until they could become more financially stable.

When the owner of the West Hollywood store Book Circus was facing eviction because he wasn’t paying his rent, Barry jumped at the chance to take over the business, and he and Karen changed the name of the store to Circus of Books. The business became so successful that they opened a second location in the Silver Lake neighborhood in 1985. (The Silver Lake location closed in 2016.) A third Circus of Books location opened in Sherman Oaks in the late 1980s, but lasted for only two years; it was shut down because of too many neighborhood complaints about the store’s adult content and the clientele it attracted. The Masons further expanded the business by starting a gay porn film-production company. Porn star Jeff Stryker, porn director Matt Sterling and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt are among the Masons’ former colleagues who are interviewed in the movie.

Karen describes herself as religious, while Barry says that he’s not. (Because of their differing views on religion, she calls their relationship a “mixed marriage.”) Even though she and Barry made their living from hardcore porn, Karen says she never really liked to see any of the porn that they sold. She also didn’t want to hear details about the cruising and sexual activities that were going on at Circus of Books. (In 1989, the city of West Hollywood ordered that the store shut down between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., in response to complaints about hustlers at Circus of Books.) Karen’s ability to separate her religious beliefs from her business activities is demonstrated in a scene where she goes to a convention for sex toys and looks over products in a sales-minded, detached manner. It’s almost like she’s the owner of a hardware store who’s shopping for tools and pondering the sales value of what she might buy.

Past and present store employees say that even though Karen never really watched the porn that she sold, what she did watch closely was the financial accounting for the business, and she was a strict “taskmaster” boss, while Barry was more likely to give their employees some slack if they made a mistake. In the years before the Internet changed the porn industry, business was booming for Circus of Books.

Things also began to change for Circus of Books in 1993, when the Masons were busted for transporting obscene material across state lines, due to the mail-order part of their business. The FBI got involved, but the parents kept their legal problems hidden from their three kids. Even though Bill Clinton’s election as U.S. president meant that new prosecutors were appointed to the Masons’ case, the case wasn’t dismissed until 1995. The legal turmoil that the Masons went through had repercussions on the business for many years to come.

As the director of the documentary, Rachel is shown on camera interviewing people, including Circus of Books employees; her parents; and her older and younger brothers. Viewers get to see some of their family dynamics, as Rachel (who describes herself as an artistic free spirit) tries to figure out how her parents’ unusual line of work might have affected their family. Rachel doesn’t really interrogate as much as have conversations with the people involved in the business.

On the one hand, the family is disappointed that they have to close Circus of Books—the rise of Internet porn and gay dating apps such as Grindr essentially made Circus of Books an obsolete business. On the other hand, the business was losing so much money in its last few years (plus, Karen and Barry Mason were getting ready to retire anyway) that shuttering the business is almost a relief for the family.

What viewers won’t be seeing in this documentary are explicit scenes of gay porn, nor will they see undercover video of people cruising at Circus of Books, although there are some people interviewed in the film who talk about their cruising experiences. What’s more surprising (and revealing) is how someone as conservative and religious as Karen lasted as long as she did in the gay porn business. It’s clear from watching the film that she saw the business only as a means to make money to provide a comfortable life for her family. She didn’t see the customers as “family,” only as part of the business.

That emotional detachment explains why Karen had a difficult time coming to terms with her homophobia when her youngest child, Josh (Rachel’s younger brother), came out as gay when he was in college. (By contrast, Barry was more accepting of Josh’s sexual orientation.) In the documentary, Josh talks about the anguish of keeping his sexuality a secret.

And in case anyone is ignorant enough to think his parents’ line of work made him gay, Josh reiterates that he would be gay regardless of what his parents did for a living. According to the documentary, when the Mason children were growing up, Karen and Barry apparently went to great lengths not to expose their children to the porn that Karen and Barry sold. The spouses kept the type of business they did a secret for many years from their children and people in their straight community. In the years before the Internet existed, it was easier to keep this type of secret.

Growing up, Josh was considered the “perfect” child who excelled in school, but he was afraid to come out as gay because he knew it would upset his mother. The irony is not lost on Rachel, who confronts her mother about the hypocrisy of making a living from gay customers and yet not be willing to accept that one of her children is part of the gay community too. The documentary points out that it took years for Karen to be at the place where she is now: a proud member of PFLAG, the organization for parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays.

“Circus of Books” is a low-budget film that keeps the production values very basic in telling the story. There’s no fancy editing or arty cinematography. The movie also strikes the right balance between showing touches humor but not at the expense of addressing serious topics, such as the effect that the AIDS crisis had on numerous Circus of Books customers and employees. On the surface, the movie is about a gay porn business and how it affected the gay social scene in Los Angeles. But underneath the surface, this documentary is really about how this “mom and pop” business affected the family who owned it.

Netflix will premiere “Circus of Books” on April 22, 2020.

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