American Porn

The PBS series Frontline has aired documentaries on all sorts of "controversial" subjects over the years, and they’ve finally gotten around to the porn industry. Possibly because they’re on PBS, and not a ratings-driven network, they take a slightly more sober approach than Dateline NBC or even 60 Minutes might have. Rather than interviewing the actors and actresses (a pursuit about as rewarding as showing a dog card-tricks), the Frontline team has chosen to focus on the economic and legal issues currently facing the "adult industry." They’ve got an interesting story available for the telling: during the Reagan and Bush I years, mammoth judicial crusades were undertaken to sink the porn industry, but virtually moments after Clinton took office, that all ceased. Janet Reno is seen saying that her administration had "other priorities." Of course, once George W. Bush took power, the porn wars were back on again, and the appointment of Attorney General John Ashcroft boded ill for the industry–at least, until September 11.

Sadly, Frontline‘s admirable attempt to tell this story is sidetracked by their efforts to display the various sides of the business. The viewer follows along on visits to several segments of the porn world. First, photographer Clive McLean is shown shooting photographs and videos for his "Barely Legal" line of magazines and tapes, a specialty-market subsidiary of Larry Flynt’s Hustler empire. ("Barely Legal," as its title implies, deals exclusively in images of 18- and 19-year-old girls, performing explicit sex acts in coquettish costumes and scenarios.)

Next up is Danni Ashe, who operates a softcore porn website closer in spirit to an old-time burlesque house (girls get naked and tell jokes) than the hardcore of today. Finally, Frontline introduces Rob Black and Lizzy Borden, a married couple who produce films under the name Extreme Associates. Extreme’s films are often very violent, and can reach surreal peaks of misogynist degradation. In fact, the main purpose of showing their shoot seems to be to depict the Frontline crew’s disgust at the goings-on. They eventually leave the set, which leaves the viewer with the question of whether they brought two cameras specifically so they could capture themselves walking out in horror.

This sequence raises the first of a few interesting questions about Frontline’s journalistic priorities. Clearly, they were shocked by the violence in the Extreme production, but just as clearly, they were not at all disturbed by the blatantly pedophilic implications of the "Barely Legal" series. Mr. McLean is presented as a kindly British gentleman who treats his girls with respect, even if they are depicted having sex with men as old as their fathers–indeed, as old as Mr. McLean himself. Lizzy Borden, by contrast, is depicted as a nearly sociopathic woman who exorcises her own personal demons by watching other women being brutalized. Why the difference in attitude? No answer is provided.

Another interesting question is raised, and another answer avoided, when Frontline turns its attention to the "Cambria List." This list, compiled by industry attorney Paul Cambria, contains guidelines intended to pacify the Ashcroft Justice Department. Frontline discusses a few of its recommendations, including the avoidance of pain, coercion, and bodily functions. However, the documentary does not make mention of the most controversial entry on the list: Cambria’s recommendation that, in order to avoid obscenity prosecutions, videomakers cease to depict black-white interracial sex. Why avoid this subject? It seems just as important as anything else under discussion, and possibly more important, given its implications. The filmmakers do not address the issue, nor do they address their failure to question Cambria on it.

Finally, the documentary’s entire tone must be questioned. In the introduction, Frontline offers impressive-sounding figures on porn’s annual revenue, and throughout the broadcast, connections are established between porn production houses and major corporate distributors like AT&T and Yahoo!. Yet the tone of the entire show is the same breathless excitement, the same hint of the forbidden, employed by low-rent tabloid TV shows during sweeps. Shouldn’t it be obvious that, if a business is generating literally billions of dollars annually, a large portion (if not the majority) of Frontline viewers will be at least glancingly familiar with the products on offer? It’s fair to assume, when making a film about the auto industry, that the viewer has, at some point, sat in or at minimum seen a car. But when the subject turns to pornography, suddenly everyone’s an innocent. This is dishonest filmmaking, and unfortunately, that dishonesty is all over American Porn.

Phil Freeman