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Entries in After Porn Ends [2010] (1)

Monday
Feb252013

After Porn Ends (2010)

Grab a Tissue

Two thirds of the way into After Porn Ends, adult-film expert Luke Ford undoes director Bryce Wagoner's previous hour by suggesting everything he'd captured may be a lie. The documentary profiles fourteen former porn stars, chronicling their tragic and/or accidental entry into the business; their at once glamorous and degrading careers; and their unexpected adventures in retirement. But Ford posits that we'll never know the truth about these people, whose entire professional lives were built around selling positivity and fantasy on camera.

It's a real buzz-kill, because After Porn Ends is so captivating. No matter what your views on pornography, Wagoner's film has something for you. Are you a decades-long skin-flick enthusiast? You'll likely get a kick out of learning where your yesteryear favorites ended up. Are you a casual, modern fan whose knowledge of everything adult before 1999 begins and ends with Boogie Nights? Here's some genre-spanning perspective for you. Do you hate pornography and believe that everyone involved is going straight to hell? Meet the handful of recently-saved Christians who dedicate their lives to eradicating the industry and walking current stars down the narrow path to Jesus.

In addition to Ford, the movie features a number of talking egg-heads who offer brief analyses of the porn-star psyche and how society treats performers once they break away from the biz.* There are some great observations here, but none as genuine as those that come from the stars themselves. The legendary Nina Hartley speaks as eloquently as a senator on all facets of her profession, while laughingly dismissing the notion of actually getting into politics: "There are too many pictures out there of me with a cock up my ass." Retired star/producer Randy West laments the fact that he can't participate in charity golf tournaments because most foundations think of porn as a filthy industry--even as they fall all over themselves to take money from politicians and multi-millionaire businessmen.

Not everyone is as eloquent or easy to watch. Former California gubernatorial candidate Mary Carey comes across as a pure media creature, the kind of perky blonde with naturally large breasts who can't understand why those attributes alone haven't made her a mainstream superstar. Likewise, Shelley Lubben has a sad story of drugs, prostitution, and familial abandonment to tell, culminating in her founding the industry-bashing/performer-rescue outfit The Pink Cross. Her bona fides as a "star" are questionable, as she made a whopping three films between 1993 and 1994. I don't question her passion or her cause, but blaming porn for her poor life choices is a bit like blaming the Mars corporation for losing one's legs to diabetes.

This is perhaps After Porn Ends' greatest revelation: the idea that adult entertainment, like pills and booze, is a gateway to destruction--but only in the absence of self-control and a quality support system. Take Asia Carrera, arguably the 90s second-biggest female star (next to Jenna Jameson). A self-described, unpopular nerd in school, she got into modeling and eventually porn as a way to both pay for higher education and gain self-esteem. She did both, not only becoming a member of MENSA, but also conquering the industry and leaving of her own volition. Carrera moved her family to Utah, where pornography is illegal, to raise her two young children in anonymity. Wagoner skillfully unravels his star subject's deceptively happy life, culminating in a "Where Are They Now" end-credits note that will make your heart dip (it won't sink, 'cause Carrera's fate implies hope, but the post-script is definitely a bubble-buster for such an inspirational story).

Likewise, Richard Pacheco left the business in the early 80s just as the AIDS scare came onto the scene. His wife gave him an ultimatum: stop having unprotected sex with lots of strange women or stay married and be a father to their children. One of Pacheco's co-stars, John Leslie, also retired decades ago, having grown weary of (or simply having grown up) the travel, the headaches, and being away from his spouse. In the ensuing years, he became a painter. Yes, I thought the same thing as you when I first heard that the ex-porn star was now an "artist", but watching Leslie pull watercolors from flat-bed drawers in his studio, I immediately wondered where I could buy prints--or at least a large-format book of his collected works.

I would love to see Wagoner follow this film up with a look at porn in the Internet Age--specifically, what current producers and stars think of their careers and what life might be like after it's all over. This may be impossible, considering one of the staples of success in adult film seems to be a lack of self-awareness and forward thinking (barring rare exceptions like Carrera). But After Porn Ends only encapsulates the VHS and DVD era, barely tipping its toes into the massive changes in business models and delivery systems that on-line content has necessitated. Hell, this movie came out three years ago, which is practically centuries in the technology timeline. Maybe we'll get a sequel in a few years, catching up with stars old and new, like a skin-flick version of Paul Almond's Up series.

I guess that brings us back to Ford's assertion that one can never know when a porn star is telling the truth (look no further than Citizen Kane for a "legit" movie's parallel thesis). Were this a bubble-gum documentary in the vein of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, I might second-guess my reaction to the performers' stories. Because the movie is the furthest thing from a glamorous depiction of adult entertainment as you're likely to find, though, I choose to take its subjects at face value. Thanks to Wagoner's compelling, devastating portraits, I'll never think of porn in the same way again. Consider this a glowing recommendation to film buffs and a stern warning to frequent masturbators--unless you're into shame-whacking, in which case After Porn Ends is a win-win.

A Note for Netflix Commenters: I discovered After Porn Ends when it popped up in my "Watch Instantly" carousel. Unsure if it was worth my time, I clicked on the star ratings and was blown away by this comment: "I am very much against pornography, and I was surprised to find that they do have porn scenes in this documentary. So, I had to turn it off. DO NOT watch this if you are not ok with full on porn scenes."

Three things:

  1. By this logic, Morgan Spurlock should have kept the Big Macs off-camera during his fast-food documentary Super Size Me.
  2. If you want to dissuade casual Netflix viewers from watching a porn documentary, don't mention that it has "full on porn scenes". Say something like, "Fortunately, there were no full-on porn scenes", and the majority of us will keep on browsing.
  3. Please don't claim that a movie contains "full on porn scenes" when its only depiction of hard-core penetration involves Asia Carrera talking about her husband's fatal car accident. Until you've seen Sasha Grey bark like a dog while taking on a room full of sweaty dudes, you have no idea what "full on porn" even looks like.

*And, yes, they uniformly look like the kinds of guys you'd see on the street and think, "He looks like he watches a lot of porn".