At a certain point during the week that I spend in Los Angeles, interviewing adult performers, visiting adult movie sets, and talking to those who live in the San Fernando Valley and work in the adult movie industry about the recession and how the current state of the economy is affecting their livelihood, I find myself in a nondescript apartment on the outskirts of the Valley, the residence of a man who requested I not reveal his identity.
It’s a quiet, warm afternoon. Outside, a woman whose hair has been dyed the color of cherry Kool-Aid is smoking a cigarette on a narrow balcony overlooking a half-empty parking lot. In the living room, the man and I are sitting on a dingy beige sectional sofa, watching an adult movie playing on a laptop.
The movie set into which we are peering is your garden variety, run-of-the-mill porno fare: tan sofa, white walls, hideous curtains. In all likelihood, this is one more cheap hotel room located somewhere in the greater Los Angeles territory that has come to be known, colloquially, as Porn Valley.
At the center of the screen, a young woman is perched on the edge of the couch, alone. As the camera closes in on her, she smiles tentatively and crosses her arms protectively.
Her look is that of a 21st century Bettie Page. She has long, dark hair with short bangs and bright blue eyes rimmed with heavy black eyeliner. She wears a cropped black top with a plunging v-neck, a baby pink plaid miniskirt (not unlike the one worn by Britney Spears in the schoolgirl-themed music video for “… Baby One More Time”), and white high heels—otherwise known as “stripper shoes.”
“OK, so what are we going to do?” a man standing off-camera asks in a voice that sounds as if it has been digitally altered. “Should I just beat the shit out of her?”
The camera moves closer, following the man we can’t see like an obedient dog. From the right side of the frame, his left hand reaches out and grabs her by the top of her head. His right hand secures her under the jaw, trapping her in his vice. Her grimace fills the screen.
“So, what do you do for a living?”
“I work in porn.”
“Absolute whore, right?”
“What kind of whore?”
“Piece of shit whore?”
“Piece of shit whore.”
“Yeah?” He pauses. “You know, lately, I haven’t had any energy. Have you noticed that?”
“Mm-hm,” another man we can’t see concurs.
“What do you think?” the first queries.
“Girls are getting off easy,” the second advises.
“She’s a little nervous,” the first considers. “I’m a little nervous, too,” he mock-confesses. “I don’t even want to hurt you,” he tells her. “But I have to—because my friends are here.”
Over the next ten minutes, he threatens to beat her, threatens to torture her, pulls up her shirt, pulls up her skirt, hits her breasts, hits her thighs, throttles her by the neck with both hands, humiliates her, degrades her, makes her cry, chokes her until she is gasping for air. He gets her to tell the camera she is 27 years old and the only reason she’s here doing this particular job on this particularly day in this particular hotel room in the Valley is for the money, and the fact of the matter is she has two young children to support, of whom the man asks rhetorically, and seemingly for the sole purpose of screwing with her head, “They’re going to grow up to be proud of her, right?”
The woman is becoming unmoored. He orders her on her hands and knees, and begins beating her with a leather strap that cracks! across the bared skin of her backside every time he hits her, leaving angry pink welts, until, finally, in a futile attempt to protect herself, the woman reaches her arm around herself, her hand turned upwards, her palm facing outwards, and the man stops.
The camera pans to the side to find her face buried in the sofa cushions.
“Can I ask you a question?”
She doesn’t move or respond.
“Could you look at the camera, please?”
He repeats himself. Eventually, she turns her head and faces the camera. There are tears tracking down her flush cheeks. Her body is shaking uncontrollably, and her breath is hitching with every intake.
“To steal a Quentin Tarantino line,” he muses, mockingly, “‘Was that as good for you as it was for me?’”
There can be no mistake. This is when he breaks her. Her expression flattens. Her eyes go blank. She appears to be dissociating. Slowly, she turns from the camera, going somewhere else, inside herself, anywhere but here.
“OK, I’m going to bring the guys in here,” the man announces to no one in particular. “Because you’ve just gone to pieces on me.”
And, with that, the real scene begins.
It had been a long time since I first set foot in the adult industry. A dozen years ago, I opened a copy of a Bay Area newspaper to discover porn star Jenna Jameson was coming to my hometown. She would be dancing at the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco. Fifty years ago, brothers Jim and Artie Mitchell had founded the X-rated theater. In 1972, they had produced “Behind the Green Door,” ushering in the “porno chic” era. In 1991, Jim had kicked down Artie’s door and shot his brother to death, an action for which he had just spent the last of three years across the Bay’s frigid waters at San Quentin Prison. Hunter S. Thompson was once the night manager of what he had proclaimed the “Carnegie Hall of Sex in America.” By the time I got there, thanks to the home video revolution, the fading palace had become a strip club.
Online, I tracked down Jameson’s publicist. Not long after that, I was interviewing the closest thing the porn industry had to a crossover star in the making. In a Japantown hotel room, the baby-faced, blue-eyed blonde answered my questions as she rolled around on the bed with a boyfriend who served as her strip club tour roadie. What struck me wasn’t what she said—her claims of female empowerment, her insatiable sexual appetite, her devotion to her fans—but her tiny ankles. Despite all of her big-girl talk, her explicit resume, and her Jessica Rabbit-like, surgically-enhanced dimensions, she was, in the real world, just a girl—a young woman who happened to be on her way to becoming the most famous porn star in the world.
That night, a photographer and I loitered backstage as Jameson and Jill Kelly, another porn star and Jameson’s on-stage costar, got ready for the show. Kelly, a long-faced, blond, former stripper with a set of red lips tattooed on her well-tanned right butt cheek, had the distinction of having made the pages of The New Yorker a couple of years before, after her professionally struggling surfer-turned-porn-star husband, Cal Jammer, blew his brains out in front of their home on a rainy afternoon. In the crowded dressing room, a nude Jameson bent over and began coloring in her pubic hair with eye shadow—it looked too sparse, she explained. I had grown up only a few miles away, across the Bay, in Berkeley, the second daughter of two English professors, but this was another world altogether.
Downstairs, the duo stomped out on the stage like oversexed storm troopers in coordinated barely-there costumes and thigh-high platform boots, parading before the appreciative male audience as Marilyn Manson caterwauled in the background: “The beautiful people, the beautiful people/It’s all relative to the size of your steeple.” The men hooted and hollered while the women stripped off their clothes, exposing gravity-defying breasts with faint half-moon surgical scars underneath them, and spreading their legs for the eager onlookers. For a finale, Kelly did a headstand while Jameson performed oral sex on her. From the sidelines, the slack-faced men looked on at the sexual spectacle as if bearing witness to the Rapture—gobsmacked.
Afterwards, the starlets posed with their acolytes for $20-a-pop Polaroids. In the booths, nude women lounged on the tabletops, penetrating themselves with dildos, surrounded by men who watched as if they were attending a particularly fascinating fondue party. Other men disappeared into the red velvet-lined rooms hidden behind shimmering gold curtains. They were led by scantily clad, beglittered women who smelled of peaches and apricots.
At the evening’s close, Jameson and Kelly were greeted by two smiling Japanese businessmen. The foursome slipped into the dark bowels of a black stretch limousine waiting outside and headed for parts unknown.
Were I in Los Angeles, Jameson’s publicist told me, I would have been welcome to visit a set.
On a sweltering hot, late August afternoon one month later, I was on the set of a porn movie entitled “Flashpoint.” The plotline concerned itself with a coterie of firemen and firewomen, who, in the wake of the tragic death of one of their fallen brethren, were consoling each another by engaging in copious amounts of sex.
In the middle of a parking lot, seven people were having an orgy on a fire truck. Nearby, several middle-aged men, who wrote for magazines with names like Cherie and Oui, took feverish notes. I looked at the notepad in my hands; it was blank.
On the ladder, a blonde busily fellated her co-star. At mid-truck, two men were double-teaming a different blonde. In the cab, another couple was going at it.
In a semi-circle, bored crewmembers watched the performers sweat and pant under the scorching midday sun, the actors pumping and thrusting, their artificially bronzed, shiny skin stretched taut over well-defined abs and manufactured curves.
A few yards away, the real firemen, who had delivered the vehicle on loan from the city for the day, studied the action as if expecting a test on it at a future date.
Overhead, the camera zoomed lazily in and out on a crane, unblinking.
An hour passed. Positions changed. A dog barked. A plane flew across the sky. Somebody yawned. A woman moaned. Inner thighs trembled. Missionary became doggie. Woman-on-top became man-on-top. The three-way deconstructed and reassembled into new configurations. The blonde on the ladder appeared to have an orgasm, her high-pitched cry warbling through the industrial area.
Without warning, one of the three-way’s woodsmen stepped backwards, moving away from the woman bent over in front of him, with whom he had been having sex. He stared down at his flaccid penis in his hand as if it belonged to someone else. Tension filled the air.
“Lube!” the woodsman cried like a soldier calling for a medic, and a small bottle sailed across the cloudless sky, landing in his upraised palm with a smack! Within minutes, the woodsman had resumed his mechanical plowing. Disaster had been averted.
Two hours after the scene had begun shooting, it was time for the men to deliver their money shots. To one side, two crewmembers discussed a “fip.”
“What’s a FIP?” I whispered to the nearest porn writer.
“A fake internal pop” was the answer.
A few feet away, the camera hovered in front of the face of one of the three-way’s woodsmen, now feigning orgasm for footage that would be intercut in the editing bay with his soon-to-be-delivered money shot. His face contorted. His mouth gaped open. “Oh!” he announced. He looked more pained than pleasured.
Once the footage was obtained, the camera shifted focus, tracking downwards, cutting the woodsman’s head out of the shot, and the day’s indisputably one true thing landed on the heaving, freckled, fake breasts of the porn star kneeling at his feet.
Someone applauded. The scene broke. The female stars retreated to their trailers. The crew milled around the craft service table, picking at a platter of raw vegetables coupled with Ranch dip and a large bowl of Fritos.
I sat down in a folding chair in the shade. Apparently, a $250,000 budget bought you a plot as substantive as tissue paper and an orgy atop a fire vehicle. Behind the scenes, it was less like watching people have sex and more like witnessing an Olympic event in which people copulated for sport. The sex was almost incidental.
“Whaddya think?” One of the woodsmen who had been pretending to be a fireman was standing over me, his legs straddling mine. A dark-haired, olive-skinned former nurse, Mickey G. was married to yet another blond porn star, the sweet, soft-spoken Missy. Shirtless, he was still wearing his yellow fireman pants and red suspenders, caught between roles. He was the one who got the blowjob up the ladder. Now, he had positioned his groin a foot from my face. He was waiting for an answer. I looked up at him, shielding the sun with my hand, wondering if he was trying to make some kind of a point, and what, exactly, that point was.
I don’t remember what I told him. Probably, “Well, it certainly is interesting!”—or, something to that effect. And it was. The experience was surreal. I had stepped into an otherworld in which the old rules no longer applied, where people screwed in public lots atop fire trucks and ejaculating on command was part of the job description. Of course.
For all of porn’s ridiculous aspects, and those are legion, there was something deeply revelatory about witnessing its making. Despite the smoke and mirrors—the fake orgasms, the unreal bodies, the cockamamie premises—something else altogether lay behind the curtain. What that something was would take me several years to discover. Yet, on that day, I was sure of one thing: In Porn Valley, reality and fantasy are one and the same.
By the following January I had gotten my things together and moved to Los Angeles. There, I lived on the east side of the city in a sunny, one-bedroom apartment in Los Feliz. I would spend the next several years working as a freelance journalist, covering the culture beat, or so I told strangers, although, sex, for the most part, was my focus, and, by and large, my true interests lay in the Valley.
In the late 19th century, California State Senator Charles Maclay stood atop the Cahuenga Pass that runs between Los Angeles proper and the San Fernando Valley and, of the pastoral landscape that lay before him, proclaimed: “This is the Garden of Eden!”
Nowadays, conquistadores Californianos galloping past cattle grazing under massive oaks have been replaced by depressed suburban sprawl: “FOR SALE” ranch-style houses and bloated McMansions; “FOR RENT” strip mall stores and closed gas stations; “FOR LEASE” warehouses and empty gravel lots. Between these lines, the adult movie industry conducts its business in condominiums that homeowners rent out by the day to forestall foreclosure, on soundstages where independent contractors have sex to pay the bills, next to kidney-shaped backyard pools that serve as backdrops for explicit movies in which everybody gets laid and nobody swims. From this 345-square-mile valley, bound by a series of dramatic mountain ranges, a never-ending deluge of porn is sent out across the country and around the world.
Welcome to Porn Valley, USA.
I follow the 101 north over the Cahuenga Pass, heading for Woodland Hills, a mostly affluent suburban community in the Valley’s southwest corner. At the end of a cul-de-sac, I park at the bottom of a steep driveway lined with blooming red rose bushes. I wave at the workers funneling the contents of a cement truck into a neighboring yard and begin hiking up the incline. Halfway there, I reach a gate, press the intercom buzzer and identify myself. The gate swings open. At the summit, half a dozen cars are parked in front of a four-bedroom, 6,000-square-foot, $2.2 million mansion with 360-degree views of the surrounding valley. Inside, the making of “Fuck Machines 5” is already underway.
I step into the foyer. It’s cool and quiet. The noonday sun is streaming into a glass-enclosed courtyard with a red door. The door, I note, has three fist-sized holes drilled into it at waist level. Later, I will learn these are newly installed glory holes. After today’s shoot, this house will turn into a brothel—a whorehouse smack-dab in the middle of suburbia.
In the living room, panoramic windows offer expansive views of the property’s manicured grounds, a line of palm trees, and distant smog-laced mountains. A built-in sectional sofa is covered with a remarkable number of stains. The mismatched furniture has been pushed up against the walls. In the middle of the room, a naked, young woman hangs from a swing, a half-circle of tall lights surrounding her. A machine waits nearby. A metal prong extends from its base. A hot pink dildo is attached to the end of it.
“I don’t want you to swing too much,” Jim Powers, the director, cautions, sounding paternal. He considers the starlet in the swing. “It’s like a ride at Magic Mountain,” he muses, contemplating her ankles held by straps that spread her legs apart. “I don’t want you to get sick.”
At 46, Powers is a 20-year veteran of the business and the creator of some of the most bizarre porn movies ever made. His inarguably outré oeuvre includes: “Whore of the Rings,” an X-rated remake of “The Lord of the Rings,” described as an “all anal epic tail of sprawling proportions”; “Texas Dildo Masquerade,” another explicit cinematic re-envisioning, in this case of one of Jim’s personal all-time favorite films, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” only, in his version, the weapon of choice is a chainsaw with a dildo attachment; and “Ass Blasting Felching Anal Whores,” the title of which is relatively self-explanatory.
Most of the time, his spiky brown hair sticks up in various directions. He is not infrequently wild-eyed. When he is trying to make a point, he waves his arms around dramatically, as if this is the only way that he could possibly be understood. Typically, his work uniform consists of blue jeans, black Converse sneakers, and a black T-shirt. The night I first met him, nearly a decade ago, the back of his black t-shirt, stretched taut across his shoulders, declared “CAN’T HOLD BACK THE DEMONS.” On another occasion, it pronounced him “BEYOND THE GRAVE.” This afternoon, the front of his shirt trumpets “IMMORAL PRODUCTIONS.”
The girl in the swing is Ryan Hunter, a pretty, 24-year-old aspiring actress who looks like a young Sandra Bullock, whose career she would like to emulate. Last year, she moved to Los Angeles from Las Vegas, where she was a student and a cocktail waitress. Now, as Jim dotes on her, she giggles and smiles, leans back in the swing, and tosses her shoulder-length brown hair highlighted with blond streaks. She lets her mouth fall open, and her gratuitously glossed lips part. She runs a hand along her long, lithe body, which bears no signs of surgical intervention, and is, like the body of nearly every other performer in this business, deeply tan. When asked why she got into porn, she shrugs and responds simply: “For money.”
Powers gives Hunter some direction, gesticulating wildly, and contorting his body into various sexual positions. Then, he lies down on the floor, video camera in hand, and begins shooting. Close by, a production assistant—who looks to be in his forties and could be mistaken for somebody’s dad playing hooky from carpool duty—turns on the machine. As the PA slides the contraption into frame, the mecha-dildo thrusts robotically in Hunter’s direction, its engine whirring softly.
Hunter spreads her legs and the robo-phallus penetrates her. “Wow!” Jim enthuses. “Does this look sexy, baby!” He leaps to his feet and starts shooting between her legs from the robot’s point of view, as the PA struggles to keep a hold of Hunter’s right foot, so she won’t swing out of frame.
“The fuck machines are, like, mesmerizing,” Powers considers as Hunter is resituated in the swing to lie facedown. She pretends to fly, her arms extended at her sides, and giggles. “It’s like watching a fish tank,” he contemplates thoughtfully. “It’s very relaxing.”
Standing over the spread-eagle Hunter, he shoots the machine penetrating her from behind. The machine drones onward. Hunter groans, straining.
When it’s time for the final position, Hunter turns nervous. She squirms in the swing. Her face twists. “I will definitely, like, not be able to do this full-on anally,” she announces, staring at the machine. “I might, like, poo on it.”
“We can try a smaller one,” Powers suggests politely.
Judging by the expression on her face, Hunter looks to be doing the math on her predicament. If she doesn’t do what Jim is asking her to do, she may or may not get paid. If she doesn’t do this, it’s entirely possible no one else will hire her after today. So, she concedes.
“I think I’m gonna cry,” chokes Hunter, teary-eyed, as the machine anally penetrates her.
“Just try to look happy,” Powers consoles, reaching up from below to gently pat the inside of her thigh. “Sell it to me, baby.”
Eventually, he gets what he needs. Finally, the set photographer steps in to take the photos sold to adult magazines to maximize the amount of money made off the scene. Inadvertently, he steps on the machine’s controls. The robot slams into overdrive. The dildo thrusts in and out, the engine screaming, narrowly missing goring Hunter, who promptly bursts into tears.
Afterwards, she confides in me about the experience: “Anal sex is, like, a very emotional thing.”
The recession has forced us into making this,” Powers states flatly, the quiet machine at his feet. According to him, the “Fuck Machines” series isn’t a product of some sick mind—say, his. It’s a consequence of the recession.
The day of reckoning has arrived in the Valley. Online content pirating, increased competition, a flooded market, the economic crisis, and a series of federal obscenity indictments have completely transformed the business of making adult movies. Consumers are no longer interested in paying for what they can get online for free. Across the board, those I spoke to reported profits have fallen by an estimated 30 to 50 percent.
Three years ago, Powers shot four to five movies a week. Nowadays, he’s lucky if he shoots two a week. Like many other businessmen, he’s been forced to cut corners. Ergo, the “life support system for a penis” of yesteryear has been replaced by the lower maintenance RoboCock.
“We got rid of the male talent!” Powers crows, triumphant. He enumerates the benefits of working with an animatronic phallus on one hand. “They don’t complain as much. They’re always hard. You don’t have to feed them.” Of course, the 21st century woodsman does have one drawback. “They’ve always got bolts falling off,” Powers admits with a shrug.
“The market is saturated with porn, the Internet is pirating porn left and right, and the economy is in the shitter,” Powers laments after Hunter’s shoot, staring out the sliding glass doors at a fountain trickling pleasantly in the sun-dappled backyard. He looks like a spurned lover—heartbroken. “Porn destroyed itself,” he mutters. “2005 was the peak of shit.” He shakes his head. “Now, we’re just living in piles of shit.” He is crestfallen. “It completely destroyed everything.” He looks at the floor.
A redhead appears in the doorway. Powers will shoot a total of five scenes today, and hers is next. It’s time for Jim to get back to work. On the sidelines, another machine is waiting for its turn in the spotlight. This one is double-headed.
I wander through the house. In the kitchen, two young women sit in director’s chairs, having their hair and makeup done. Out front, a rival porn company shows up and prepares to shoot in the guesthouse. I count 14 cars in the driveway.
Longtime Powers sidekick and production manager Johnny Thrust (a skinny, rat-like, bespectacled sometimes performer whose resume includes “Porn of the Dead,” “Camel Toe Jockeys 2,” and “My Best Friend's Mom Takes It Up the Ass”) clicks busily away on a laptop. A peroxide blond motormouth everybody calls Porno Dan, whom I met in London years before where he was helping coordinate impromptu gangbangs in hotel rooms, is wearing a T-shirt that reads, “This Is My Horny Look,” and trying to talk to Jim about their latest recession-busting, pirating-proof project in which porn fans have sex with porn stars live on the Internet. (“So you can capture the failure live,” Jim explains enthusiastically of its appeal.)
One room, in which the walls are painted with thick black and white stripes to horrifying effect, contains a full-sized bar, a giant black leather sofa, and a bookshelf lined with dusty athletic trophies, emptied bottles of booze, and a copy of Deepak Chopra’s The Return of Merlin, the back cover of which promises readers “the resplendent peace that each of us enfolds within our own hearts.”
From the living room, a woman yodels, “Ohhh myyy Gawwd,” and the machine climbs to a shrieking crescendo. Most of the bedrooms are barren but for an unmade bed. Upstairs, the master bedroom is the only room someone appears to actually inhabit. A long shelf in the walk-in closet showcases an impressive collection of colorful glass bongs. The master bathroom is massive and all marble.
Out in the peaceful backyard, I stop at the edge of the rock-lined pool. The homeowner appears. I comment on all the activity. Is this how he pays his mortgage? I inquire.
“Huh?” A young blonde in matching pink fishnet lingerie and stockings has stepped outside to smoke. I repeat my question. “Yeah, yeah,” he mutters, distracted. “That’s how I pay my mortgage.” He moves towards the blonde. “So,” he asks her, “you choose the machines over me?” The girl laughs.
In the dining room, I sit down with Hunter, who has put on a maroon velour tracksuit. After a two-year stint at the University of Nevada at Reno, where she studied secondary education with the intention of becoming a schoolteacher, and another stint working as a cocktail waitress in a casino, she came to Hollywood.
“I wanted to get out of Vegas, and I wanted to be an actress.” Things didn’t turn out quite the way she’d planned. At the time, she was using, “like, heroin, and Oxycontins, and cocaine—everything.” Instead of taking acting classes and going on auditions, “I jumped right into porn.” She did a few scenes—“I was totally high”—and then met her boyfriend, who helped her kick drugs, and left the business.
A month ago, though, they broke up. That’s when she realized he was her primary means of financial support. Now, she’s back.
In the Valley, porn is her reality. “People say, ‘You don’t really have to do that.’ Well, you really kind of do,” she explains, her voice plaintive, “if you don’t have an education, if you don’t have parents backing you, if you don’t have all those things.” She looks at her hands folded in her lap. “There isn’t another choice. There really isn’t a lot of other choices.”
Today is her second shoot since she returned to porn a week ago. “I don’t do anal, and that was really crappy for me. I was acting the whole time.” Jim, she offers, is “nice,” but she really needed the $500. She has student loans, credit card debt, and no car. This is what she’s doing to get by.
“It’s not the most respectable to do, but it’s a phone call, and I have $500,” she asserts. “It lets me know, ‘You’re going to be OK, even if you don’t make enough money at your job, you have this to fall back on.’ I can make my bills. I can get a car. I can do the things I need to do to move forward.” Although, if her friends and family find out, she says, “I would absolutely die.”
Being a porn star isn’t easy. “It’s really weird. Like, at nighttime, I get anxiety about it. Like, I did the other scene, and, last night, as soon it got dark, and I laid in bed, and I was just alone with my thoughts, I felt really guilty and nervous about it.”
She hesitates. “So, you know, it’s, like, I keep praying about it, and, you know, asking to kind of be forgiven, ‘cause it is kind of wrong, I think, and it’s very degrading, I think, and it’s just—.”
She’s on the verge of tears. “I need the money that bad. I don’t have a car. I don’t have anything right now. I actually, like—I just need the money.”
Earlier, I spotted a porn star whom I know moonlights as an escort, not an uncommon sideline in this businesses, especially when jobs are few and far between during an economic downturn. I ask Hunter if she’s thinking about escorting.
“Yes, I am.” So far, she hasn’t.
I’m sitting outside, talking to the redhead, when a distant thudding comes from the sky. Overhead, a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter circles the house. Once. Twice.
Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the helicopter turns tail and leaves, heading for the Hollywood Hills, the great divide between Hollywood, where the real stars live, and the Valley, where the porn stars reside.
Leaving, I spy the PA at the kitchen sink, staring out the window, his expression blank.
He’s washing the dildos—for the next girl, the next scene.
The following morning, I pay a visit to Jim at his Chatsworth offices in the far northwest corner of the Valley, near the foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains. The building, which sits on a relatively busy street, is remarkable only for its unremarkability. In the entry room, there’s a candy-dispensing machine. In the next room, an open box sits on a green pleather sofa. I peek inside. Two disembodied silicone breasts stare back up at me.
The sign on the ajar office door reads: “Do not ask Jim to borrow money!!! I mean it! This door must remain closed at all times!!!!”
Inside, a glass trophy case is stocked with AVN awards from the “Academy Awards of Porn” held every January in Vegas, where Powers was inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame in 2005. Once treated as a pariah, he has won his peers’ respect as a businessman who found his niche, albeit an unusual one, and made money filling the demand for it.
The bookshelves are lined with rows of binders, their crudely rendered titles scrawled upon their spines: “Black Snake Boned,” “Escape from Women’s Prison,” “DP Virgins: The Classic Years,” “Fuck Pig: The Movie,” “Garbage Pail Girls #1,” “Mouth Meat #6.” The wall shelf behind the desk is crowded with punk rock-themed tchotchkes; half-naked, bound, and kneeling female figurines; and the uniformed team members of the 1972 “perfect season” Miami Dolphins. On the desk there is a laptop, a woman’s driver’s license, and a large knife. A turquoise lace bra lies on the floor nearby.
Powers presides over this dominion, checking his email, screening his calls, and waxing philosophical. At a certain point during our conversation, I realize, after all these years, whom he reminds me of—the Joker. Not Heath Ledger’s. Not Jack Nicholson’s. But Cesar Romero’s Joker from the late ‘60s “Batman” TV series—the high-camp super-villain in white face with a slit ear-to-ear grin who shrieks with delight at the sheer genius of his own outrageous acts.
He is a third-generation San Fernando Valley son. After his parents divorced when he was in the fifth grade, he was shuttled back and forth between the Valley, where his father—an architect and “hardcore, rightwing Republican who hates what I do and will not accept it”—lived, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his mother—who, prior to the divorce, was a homemaker, and, after that, “Well, after the divorce, she became a belly dancer”—lived. His was a bifurcated comeuppance. He was obsessed with horror movies, punk rock music, and girls.
He ended up at California State University, Northridge, where he majored in business and joined a fraternity, Sigma Pi, where he became the social chairman, a position that prepared him for his future career as a professional ringleader: “I was in charge of arranging the parties.” It took him six years to earn his bachelor’s degree.
After graduation, he went into sales, which he despised. One day, he ran into a former frat brother who was earning a ton of money as a stockbroker—of sorts. Not long after, he moved to New York, where he became a “pump and dump” broker. “If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Boiler Room,’ I basically worked for that firm,” he explains. “It was a big shell game. They were manipulating stocks.” Eventually, the SEC shut the company down. He took a similar job in Atlanta. The SEC shut them down, too.
Then, he got a call from an ex-coworker down in Florida who wanted to know if he was interested in making some kickboxing movies. “What the hell do I know about that?” he wondered. Unemployed, he had nothing left to lose. Working with a partner, he raised seed money from investors and flew to Florida. But there was a problem. The feds had busted their business partner for making porn movies. “We’re like, ‘What?!’” Powers shrieks. “’We can’t go into business with a pornographer!’” And that’s how Jim got into porn.
He moved back to the Valley to pursue his newfound dream. Things got off to a rocky start. An early “Beach Bum Amateurs” shoot led to his arrest on conspiracy and pandering charges. Making a buck off porn movies in the Nineties was no cakewalk. He almost quit. But he kept at it. After a time, he started getting noticed … for his unique willingness to push the envelope. “I had a baby and a wife, I had to pay the bills somehow, and I started getting a reputation for doing these crazy things.”
To date, he has produced and directed over 500 adult movies. But, this isn’t your father’s porn. Equal parts freak show, horror movie, and Russ Meyer-on-crack, his X-rated visions are deranged, demented, mind-boggling expeditions into the dark, unexplored continent of human sexual perversity. Fascinating, horrifying, and amusing—oftentimes all of those things at the same time—Powers’ celluloid world is one populated by midgets, bald chicks, and crazed men outfitted with monster-sized papier-mâché phalluses which spew torrents of goo onto the naked bodies of supine women, movies in which everyone has sex all of the time, and in which, most of the time, no one appears to win.
Take, for example, “The Bride of Dong,” in which two young, unsuspecting women “inadvertently unleash the power and massive cock of an ancient fertility god when they decide to house sit for the summer,” the result of which is the “call[ing] forth an ancient being from another time and world who bridges the cosmos to shove his massive tool up their asses,“ and the true star of which is neither the decidedly comely Gia Paloma or Julie Night but a six-foot prosthetic penis that belongs to an onerous, fanged beast that emerges upon a full moon. (An online reviewer noted dutifully: “It's hard to possibly make anything of this, other than to say that it’s vintage Jim Powers,” adding, “I haven't seen a prosthetic dong this big since ‘Boogie Nights.’”)
To decry Powers-helmed series—like “Gag Factor,” in which women, not infrequently, hang upside down and perform oral sex on male costars to the point of gagging and sometimes vomiting; “White Trash Whore,” in which seemingly innocent Caucasian women are gangbanged by roving packs of African-American men, and for which the box cover copy reads, “Mom, Dad … I hate you this much!”; and “Young and Anal,” again, the title here is self-revelatory—as “misogynist” is almost beside the point.
In this canon, the real subject is not human sexuality but humanity itself. The products that Jim produces are videotaped vivisections, studies in which homo sapiens lie upon the operating table, the director is the doctor, the camera is the scalpel, and the only question worth asking is, How far will we go if we are pushed to our limits?
A long time ago, I asked Jim why he makes the movies that he does. He told me that when he was a teenager he had wanted to see what happened to the girl in the horror movies when the camera cut away from the action. What he had wanted was more. Hardcore, at least for a while, took him there.
By the time the millennium turned, porn was going mainstream; every red-blooded American male with an Internet connection could download porn 24/7; anybody who could afford a home video camera could declare himself a pornographer; fly-by-night production companies were cropping up across the Valley like weeds; low-budget “gonzo porno” was all the rage; and Powers’ odd brand of extreme porn was flying off the shelves. “I was turning down companies asking me to shoot,” he recalls today. He was willing to go beyond the pale if that’s what it took to entertain the masses, and for that he was rewarded. “It was like the last days of Rome,” he says wistfully. “We were in the vomitorioums.”
Then, everything changed. In 2004, “VHS fell off a cliff.” DVD sales, expected to take the place of VHS sales, weren’t happening in the now glutted adult video market. “I warned people. I go, ‘You know what? Get ready, because the fallout is about to hit. We are about to die.’” Upstart online companies like Reality Kings, Brazzers, and Bang Brothers were shooting on the cheap and slapping their product on the Internet, all in the same day. “Tube sites” were giving pirated porn away. Forget VHS. Forget DVDs. Heck, forget movies. The Valley was floundering.
Once upon a time, pornographers were kings. Now, content was king. “Everybody talks about ‘content,” Powers bemoans, disgusted. “What the fuck is ‘content’?” he sneers. “That’s what it’s turned into. Content. Even that word is offensive!” he shouts, banging his fist on the desk. “The average shooter, nowadays, he has no interest in making a good movie. He shoots content. We might as well be pimps!” he hollers, waving his hands in protest. “Pimps and whores! And we shoot content!”
His voice softens. “It’s not near as fun as it was. They’re just shooting content to fill these specs they need for some website they’re shooting for,” he sniffs reproachfully. “They’re not being creative,” he pouts. “They’re not doing anything interesting.”
I debate whether or not to point out some might question the “creative” caliber of his work, but don’t.
Either way, more trouble was coming.
When Bush took office in 2001, Porn Valley’s denizens grew nervous. Rumor had it the newly appointed attorney general, John Ashcroft, was planning on launching a full-scale attack on the adult movie business.
Pornographers had spent the last eight years enjoying Clinton’s mostly hands-off approach to obscenity prosecutions, the consequence of which was that the industry had, for all intents and purposes, gone what could only be described as totally insane. Porn Valley was the Wild, Wild West, and its purveyors had found their manifest destiny was producing as much porn as humanly possible, generating in excess of 10,000 adult videos every year. “Stunt sex,” perhaps best embodied in the “World’s Biggest Gangbang” series, reared its head, and directors like Greg Dark, Rob Black, and Max Hardcore were pushing porn to new extremes with movies featuring simulated rape, feigned pedophilia, and wholesale degradation. Estimates put the adult movie industry’s revenue at $10 to $14 billion annually, a figure Forbes.com has (rightly) dismissed as born out of “baseless and wildly inflated” numbers created by “self-interested” pornographers. But one thing was for sure: those were the glory days of porn, and nothing could stop it.
Previously, conservative administrations had stepped in to police the strange business of making sex movies, handing out indictments and imprisoning those perceived to have crossed the infamously blurry “I know it when I see it” line rumored to lie somewhere between pornography and obscenity. Under Clinton, obscenity indictments came down the pipeline few and far between, and the administration’s message was clear: anything goes. Porn ran unchecked; business was booming.
Out of the 1973 case of Marvin Miller v. State of California, the Supreme Court had created the “Miller test” to determine if a work is obscene. If a) the work, judged by the average American using community standards, appeals to the prurient interest, b) depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and c) lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value (aka the “SLAPS test”), it is obscene, and, therefore, not protected by the First Amendment. Yet, the technology revolution would change everything. What defines community standards in a digital age? If “2 Girls 1 Cup” is water cooler talk, what is offensive? Above all else, what is “obscene”?
In 2000 and 2001, the LAPD had initiated something of a crackdown, targeting a handful of pornographers on obscenity-related charges. Their number included Mike Norton, who runs JM Productions, which has produced many of Powers’ videos, and Adam Glasser, more widely known as Seymore Butts. Among the potentially obscene videos were Powers’ “American Bukkake 11,” in which 83 men masturbate onto the face of a woman named Cotton Candy, and Butts’ “Tampa Tushy-Fest,” in which a woman can be seen vaginally and anally fisting another woman and exclaiming, “Fuck yeah, that’s girl power!”
What fresh hell would the Bush administration bring?
“The only thing that saved a lot more people from getting indicted and going to jail is 9/11,” Powers asserts. Whatever the Bush administration had planned for the jizz bizz was derailed when terrorists flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, killing Americans by the thousands. In light of that fact, the government would have a hard time drumming up public support for positing those who videotaped people screwing for a living as the new public enemy number one.
On a local level, deals were struck. Those charged were let off with a slap on the wrist. And Porn Valley did what it does best—it went right back to business as usual.
By 2005, though, Ashcroft was out, and his replacement, Alberto Gonzales, was in. In his first public statement on a legal matter, the new AG declared he would be seeking to reinstate a 10-count federal obscenity indictment against Robert Zicari (aka Rob Black) and Janet Romano (aka Lizzy Borden), a San Fernando Valley couple, and their production company, Extreme Associates.
The company was well known for the extreme nature of its productions. During filming for a “Frontline” special on obscenity, a PBS crew had walked off the set of an Extreme movie, “Forced Entry”—a bloody rape-and-murder-themed tale inspired by the life and times of serial killer and serial rapist Richard Ramirez—ostensibly due to the untenably violent nature of what they were witnessing. When the program had aired, Zicari could be seen daring federal prosecutors to bust him. That another Extreme production, “Ass Clowns 3,” featured one “Osama bin Laden” leading his henchmen in the gang-raping of an American female reporter probably did not endear him to those in the Bush administration either. In 2003, the Department of Justice had taken Zicari up on his offer. The month before Gonzales had taken office, a federal judge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had dismissed the charges, declaring anti-obscenity laws unconstitutional. Now, the new attorney general was looking to turn the tables.
Later that year, the DoJ announced the formation of the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, which would be dedicated to the pursuit of obscenity prosecutions. Then, the FBI began recruiting for what The Washington Post snickeringly deemed a “porn squad,” the Adult Obscenity Squad, which would be focused on targeting manufacturers and purveyors of pornography. By year’s end, the charges against Zicari and Romano had been reinstated. It seemed Bush’s much-touted “war on porn” had begun.
In 2006, JM Productions received its own 18-count federal obscenity indictment for “Gag Factor 18,” “Filthy Things 6,” “Gag Factor 15,” and “American Bukkake 13.” Powers had directed them all.
“It was horrible. I was shocked,” he recollects, shaking his head. With the market already in turmoil, this was the last thing he needed. Sales dropped as distributors, fearing busts for carrying potentially obscene product, steered clear of his product. Thanks to his work, his producer’s legal fees mounted. His once promising porn career wasn’t looking so hot.
In 2007, the case went to trial in a Phoenix, Arizona courtroom. Federal agents had purchased the videos from Five Star Video, a Tempe video distributor and retailer, in hopes of trying the case before jurors less liberal-minded than those in, say, LA. This would be no small case: It was the OPTF’s first frontline battle.
On the first day, in what amounted to a technicality, prosecutors were unable to prove JM Productions had sold the videos to Five Star Video. Norton walked a free man. If this was Bush’s “war on porn,” it was off to an embarrassing start. In the end, Five Star Video was found guilty of interstate transportation of obscene materials for sending a copy of “Gag Factor 18” to a FBI agent in Virginia, and sentenced to two years probation, a hollow victory for the U.S. government, surely.
By that point, Gonzales was gone, having departed in the wake of the scandalous dismissal of seven U.S. attorneys, several of whom had been blacklisted for having exhibited a distinct lack of interest in dedicating their budgets to what OPTF director Brent Ward insisted were “good [obscenity] cases.” Among those “good cases” was what would become the failed prosecution of JM.
Regardless, the OPTF soldiered onward. In 2007, Ira Isaacs, a 56-year-old, LA-based producer and distributor of scat and bestiality videos (one hopes “Gang Bang Horse (Pony Sex Game)” does not ring a bell) was indicted on obscenity charges. But the 2008 trial turned into a media circus when it was revealed presiding Judge Alex Kozinski maintained a publicly accessible website that included explicit content (example: a nude woman painted as a cow). Today, the case languishes in legal limbo. In 2008, John “The Buttman” Stagliano was indicted on federal obscenity charges. No trial date has been set yet. Late last year, the OPTF finally scored a hard-won win when a Tampa jury found Max Hardcore (aka Paul Little) —a towheaded, cowboy hat-wearing 52-year-old adult director with an unfortunate predilection for having of-age, bepigtailed porn stars claim underage status on camera, women he then penetrates with speculums and upon whom he urinates—guilty on a slew of obscenity-related charges. Currently, Little is serving a 46-month stretch at the Metropolitan Detention Center in scenic downtown Los Angeles. On July 1st, Zicari and Romano, looking to put an end to their unending legal case and legal costs, pled guilty to violating federal obscenity laws and were sentenced to one year and one day each for their respective pornographic transgressions.
Thus far, it’s not altogether clear how interested the Obama administration is in cracking down on obscenity. The general assessment: not very. If the obscenity trials induced a chilling effect on the Valley, history suggests basking in the warm glow of a liberal president wholly uninterested in obscenity prosecutions will heat things back up in the Valley in no time.
Is this porn’s boon or bust?
Their content: hijacked. The marketplace: swamped. The indictments: have left their mark. Last year’s swift arrival of the global financial crisis sent profits tumbling even further. Jim, who estimates he’s experienced a profit drop of a whopping 40 percent since, is hoping things will get better—in late 2010, or maybe 2011.
All around him, production companies are disappearing in a Darwinian era in which only the strong—or those pornographers who understand how to sate the fickle, ever-changing American libido—will survive the crash.
No matter. Fuck the economy. Fuck the feds. Fuck the competition. Powers has no intention of stopping what he’s doing. “I just keep on plodding along,” he confides stoically. “I’m like a machine.” Besides, it’s not like he’s doing anything wrong. He’s helping people. He’s giving the unemployed masses much-needed jobs. “I fulfilled a dream!” he cackles when I ask him about the previous day’s “Fuck Machines” shoot. “I’m a dream weaver!”
Jim isn’t the bad guy. He’s the good guy. “I sleep at night,” he informs me, his voice rising, “because I know, in my heart of hearts, I’m giving people money, that could not hold a job at fucking McDonald’s, for the most part. I’m paying people’s rent.” He waves his hands spastically. “It’s a lot more than I can say for a lot of the companies in America, pieces of shit, like Madoff, and Enron, all of these son of a bitches the Bush administration funded that do nothing but take, take, take! Here, I just give, give, give! And this is a fact!” he shouts, wild-eyed. “We are helping these girls! Anybody that comes into this business, for the most part, is a broken toy.” He leans towards me, earnestly attempting to make himself understood. “We’re giving them a place where they can make money, and get by, so they’re not standing on line in a welfare department. Thank God for people like me!” He bangs the desk.
“You ever see the movie ‘Rollerball’?” he queries, turning pensive. The 1975 film is set in 2018, when the world has become a global corporate state, and the most popular game is called “rollerball.” To win the game, Americans brain each other to death with metal balls, sating the bloodlust of the watching populace and “to demonstrate the futility of individual human effort,” according to one overseer. But when a veteran player, Jonathan E, played by James Caan, becomes a star survivor and refuses to retire, the government decides to kill him.
“They do not want James Caan being successful, because he was getting older, and he was showing how one man could survive against the system,” Powers explains. “People still went to watch gladiators in the future … to see if they could persevere.”
Many years ago, Jim’s boss, the prosecuted Mike Norton, reminded me of porn’s indisputable bottom line. If people didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be made.
“Pandora’s box has been opened,” Powers observes darkly. “The Internet did that.”
There’s no going back.
“Shooting porno is never gonna die as long as people have an interest in sex. It’s the medium that changes.” All he has to do is make a buck off the longing, channel the dark side of the American dream, create something so new, so outrageous, so unbelievable that people will pay to see it—even now. After all, when the industry is porn, profits may rise and profits may fall, but the demand is never-ending. His phone keeps ringing, his cell phone won’t stop vibrating across his desk, and there it is again, a melodious, computer-generated hymn—bing-bong-bing!—heralding the arrival of yet another incoming email of somebody wanting something.
I ask Jim if I can look around the warehouse. In the barren space, metal shelves are stacked high with torn-open brown boxes vomiting streams of DVDs. In the corner, a stage the color of Pepto-Bismol and decorated with silver star-covered streamers is empty. Next to the rollup door, an older man next to a bank of video monitors televising the live feed from the building’s surveillance cameras eyes me suspiciously.
Something is hanging in the rafters. It takes a minute for me to figure out what it is. It’s a leftover prop from one of Jim’s movies. It’s a giant vagina costume, a real monster, no doubt.
“You’re always welcome on my sets, Susannah,” Powers calls after me as I walk out the door.
On an otherwise unremarkable evening in the Valley last October, a light-skinned, mixed-race, twenty-something male wearing a satin Los Angeles Dodgers jacket over a bulletproof vest appeared on the set of an adult movie. On the stage, cast and crew were preparing to bring to life the latest perversity to have sprung forth fully formed from the twisted mind of Jim Powers, “American Gokkun 8.” The gokkun video series is the bastard cousin of the bukkake video series. The idea of gokkun is simple. In bukkake, the men masturbate onto the woman. In gokkun, she swallows. Ami Emerson, a 25-year-old strawberry blonde from Placerville, California, who has clear blue eyes the color of Windex and who got into porn to pay off her student loans, was the night’s star attraction.
In the front office, the intruder put a handgun to Johnny Thrust’s head. “Give me the money. In the drawer. Now.” Apparently, the gunman knew where cash earmarked to pay the performers and crew was stashed. Thrust handed over $3,750. The gunman fled.
Thrust ran out onto the stage. “I just got fucking robbed!” he wailed. “They put a gun to my head!” The LAPD was called to the scene. Powers offered a $1,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest. Some speculated it was an inside job. How else could the gunman have known about the money drawer? One of the gokkun guys was seen texting somebody right before it happened. Maybe it was him. But a suspect was never located, and the gokkun robbery remains an unsolved mystery. As Powers told an industry reporter that night, “It just goes to show we’re in a recession and people are taking desperate means.” It was one more sign that hard times had hit Porn Valley.
That didn’t stop the shoot. Powers had a new idea that he wanted to try out. Nowadays, porn has become one more extreme sport in an increasingly competitive market where novelty rules. Some 70 money shots would be collected in a cup—then fried in a saucepan. For the climax, Emerson would eat the concoction.
The day I visited the house on the hill, that particular gokkun scene was the subject of much discussion. A photographer for an adult magazine had shown up with a copy of the issue in which photos from the gokkun set appeared. Emerson, who has a devilish, lopsided grin and pale skin sprinkled generously with orange freckles, looked over the gokkun pictures of herself with rapt fascination.
“I’m an attention whore,” she informed me. She enjoys partaking in extreme sports, whether that means having sex with a double-headed, motor-driven dildo—an endeavor she tackled with unabashed relish and from which she appeared to reap at least a modicum of pleasure—or consuming large quantities of semi-cooked human sperm. As for the “sperm omelet,” as everyone referred to it in awestruck tones, that was Jim’s idea, she told me. (The next day, I asked Powers about it, and he told me it was her idea.) I asked Emerson what the experience had been like. She took a moment, then replied matter-of-factly, “I like that I set the cum omelet eating record.” After a minute, she added, “It pays the bills.”
Since business fell off, there are less opportunities for women to get work in the adult movie industry. But a young woman who’s willing to do what others won’t has the potential to get more work, despite the risks. For the following week, Emerson had already booked two shoots: a five-guy gangbang, for which she would be paid $1,900, and an eight-man oral sex “blowbang,” for which she would earn $2,400.
“I’m really excited,” she enthused. Including a side-gig dancing at a local strip club—where, she said, clearly taken aback, she’d had to audition against some tough competition—she estimated her take for the week would be in the neighborhood of $6,000.
Besides paying her student loans, she’s got her heart set on becoming a Hollywood actress. “I’m doing this to afford my starving actor lifestyle,” she told me, and smiled.
This June, a porn star tested positive for HIV. The performers with whom she worked were informed of her status and tested. To date, none of her costars is reported to have tested positive for the virus.
Being a porn star is risky business. Most production companies do not require performers use condoms, although most require performers present proof of having tested negative for the virus within 30 days.
For a time after the incident came to light, the mainstream media trained its spotlight on the industry. California State Occupational Safety and Health representatives got involved. Since, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has called for state legislation that would require adult performers to use condoms in all adult productions.
Soon, though, the attention died down, and this notoriously difficult-to-legislate industry went back to the sticky business of making hardcore movies.
In the Valley, everyone with whom I spoke agreed porn was going through a difficult time. What they couldn’t agree on was what the future held.
When I suggested to some that porn stars might one day become extinct and the Valley a vanished relic of days gone by, the performers replaced by spinning constellations of flesh-colored computer pixels capable of rearranging themselves into humanly impossible sexual positions with the click of a key, I got blank stares.
This is the flesh business, their thinking goes. How could technology possibly replace a living, breathing human being having sex?
It reminded me of the early days, when the idea that anything—much less the then-plodding, wobbly World Wide Web—could threaten their livelihood was a hilarious impossibility. Until it wasn’t.
On my last day in the Valley, I drive to Canoga Park. Past Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, where rocket engines are built and in front of which a giant rocket engine sits like a piece of spaceship that has fallen out of the clear blue sky, I park in front of a brown shingle-and-clapboard building. Inside, open rooms line the stage: a locker room, a bedroom, and a dungeon. The day’s shoot will take place on a set the color of pea soup with a leather sofa the color of diarrhea and a 12-by-12 fake wood floor. Shortly, a poorly rendered seascape hung on one wall will be knocked askew.
On an unmade bed near the back, the same adult magazine photographer who had the gokkun issue is interviewing adult star Tori Black, a remarkably beautiful 20-year-old brunette.
“It was an honor just to be nominated,” she says into his tape recorder. “Of course, my first anal is going to be a big thing,” she promises, inspecting her manicure. She spells out the URL of her website several times.
The director, Mike Quasar, known as Quasarman, materializes.
“Do we just fuck and just leave?” Black wants to know. James Deen, the hipster-generation version of a woodsman, wanders around in a wrinkled shirt and blue jeans, awaiting his instructions.
The scene is for “Interactive Sex with Tori Black.” The idea is that so-called “interactive movies,” in which viewers can “control” the action through scene selection and other tools, will push consumers to purchase the DVD for the interactive experience rather than watch another crappy clip on the Internet.
“We were going to go with ‘Existential Musings of a Porn Star,’ but we thought we’d dumb it down,” the director says of the title. He continues his elevator pitch: “If you want to have sex with Tori Black and don’t have chloroform, this is your next best option.”
Black retreats into the makeup room. Eventually, she reappears, her white sweatpants and Uggs discarded. She parades fancily past the half-dozen male crewmembers lingering on the sidelines, who are gazing appreciatively at her perfect figure gliding past in a pink bra, pink thong, and pink high heels with straps around the ankles.
“And here we go,” Black says to nobody. “Off to work.” In the blink of an eye, the shoot gets underway. Within minutes, Black is naked but for her shoes and riding Deen in the reverse cowgirl position. Quasarman videotapes a few feet away. “Oh, fuck me,” Black demands lustily, bouncing up and down. “Don’t fucking stop.”
Deen plows away at his costar like the man whose assigned task is to dismantle the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. Oral. Missionary. Girl-on-top. Boy-on-top. Doggie. They pant and growl, emitting a simulacrum of heat. Even when Quasarman stops videotaping, they keep going like feral dogs unable to contain their primal urges.
Half an hour later, Black and Deen are sweating and have exhausted the book on sexual positions. Quasarman calls for the money shot.
“Actually, he can’t pop until sundown,” a crewmember cracks. It’s Passover, and Deen is Jewish. Everybody laughs, except for Deen, who is too busy having sex with Tori to care.
As the money shot lands on Black’s face, the crew maintains a respectful silence. The director calls the scene, and the crew bursts out in a rousing, rendition of “Hava Nagila,” clapping all the while.
Since she got into porn a year and a half ago, Black has done between 200 and 250 scenes. In the makeup room, she leans towards the mirror and checks her skin. The makeup makes her face break out. I ask her if she was really having orgasms the half-dozen or so times she appeared to during the scene. She looks around to see if anybody is within earshot. Deen is in the shower. She cups her hand next to her lips and mouths: No.
Deen, a 23-year-old from Pasadena, California, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dirk Diggler, has performed in approximately 2,000 scenes over the last five years. A product of the porn generation, he saw his first adult movie at six, was inspired to become a porn star while watching Jenna Jameson on MTV’s “Loveline,” and shot his first scene at 18. His girlfriend is “alt-porn” adult actress and director Joanna Angel. When I ask him if he has had sex with, say, 1,000 women in his lifetime thus far, he considers and suggests, “More than that.”
Typically, he makes between $300 and $500 a scene, far less than his female costars, who oftentimes earn four to five times as much. A year ago, he was shooting two or three scenes a day. Now? Not so much. Thankfully, women frequently request to work with him, and he is not lacking for opportunities. He may screw for work, but it’s a job, nevertheless.
“My job is contingent upon my dick working,” he notes, pondering his career trajectory. “Yes, my job is different, but it’s still a job.” The idea of a world without porn is unfathomable. “I can’t imagine a life where I wouldn’t do porn, if I had a big penis or a small penis,” he asserts. “I don’t really do this for money,” he confesses. “If I was a billionaire, I would still do porn.”
I was on the sets of “American Bukkake 11” and “American Bukkake 13.” At one point, both would be deemed obscene—in the first case, by the Los Angeles Police Department; in the second case, by the Department of Justice.
I found the experience of being there more odd than obscene. The men were there for many different reasons. They were lonely. They were horny. This was their fantasy. They wanted to be porn stars. They were fresh out of jail. They were social outcasts. They longed to be somebody, if only for a few minutes.
Afterwards, one polite young man in his twenties explained to me why he had taken Powers up on this opportunity to jerk off onto the face of a young woman whom he had never met before: “I'm not involved with anyone right now.”
They were desperate men who had congregated on a barren soundstage in North Hollywood, stripped to their underpants with their faces hidden behind bandanas, all in the hopes of a fleeting chance at intimacy with a young, attractive, naked woman who would in the real world—they knew in all likelihood—never speak to them, much less allow any of them to come on her face, were she not being paid to be there.
Porn is pure fantasy, a product that is made, for the most part, by men for men. This was but one facet of what the market demanded. Was it weird? Sure. Was it human? You bet. Was what I saw in the Valley obscene? That’s hard to say. Twelve years after the first day I set foot in the Valley, I’ve come to understand that porn is a funhouse mirror reflecting whatever we want to see in it.
If people didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be made.
Ultimately, pornography is a slave to supply and demand. If Porn Valley is America’s dream factory, it bears keeping in mind that its dreams are all yours.