Directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, Hot Girls Wanted is a documentary that looks to go behind the scenes of the world of amateur porn, following young women who are barely entering the business and recapping their journey through it. Mainly, they aim to show how easy it is for any young girl with an eye for quick cash to get into the adult industry, and the consequences that come with it.
The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and recently became commercially available through Netflix, after which — as is the case with most porn topics that hit the mainstream — it’s been the subject of a lot of debate.
The documentary focuses on the girls that work for Hussie Models, a small agency ran by Florida native Riley Reynolds, a 23-year-old guy who started as a performer and by now — after realizing where the most consistent source of money is — works almost exclusively as an agent. Through Craigslist ads that promise quick cash and free tickets to Miami, Riley regularly manages to find young amateur girls that would like to try their hand at porn. A couple of emails, pictures and conversations later, he flies them over and puts them to work. Reynolds houses the girls in his home, where he charges them for room and board, plus his 10 percent fee for all the shoots he can book them in town.
“Every day, a new girl turns 18,” Reynolds infamously said in the film. The message is simple: Any porn actress is replaceable. We live in a culture that encourages easy money, and even when someone’s not willing to continue doing a job they feel uncomfortable with, there’s always going to be someone who wants the gig.
Indeed, the active lifespan of a porn actress is usually fairly short — anywhere from a few months to a year, in this case — and the movie does its best to point out that even when they’re making money quickly, it won’t last forever. Having said that, many women (and men) have had significantly longer careers in the adult industry by being resourceful and developing a great social media presence. And while the Twitter interaction with fans is briefly touched on, the dedicated networking that many porn starlets do on a daily basis is unfortunately not a side we’re exposed to in this documentary.
The behind-the-scenes aspect of Hot Girls Wanted is definitely its best part. Those times at the house, with the girls shooting the shit, sharing stories and ambitions, and simply hanging out, are not unlike those that many people their age have when they experience their first true signs of independence — both physical and financial. These are girls in their late-teens or early-twenties who, for one or another reason, decide to fly to Miami to do porn and earn a lot more money than they were making. What we witness in their exchange is that first taste of freedom and self-belief that encourages them into the industry in the first place, even if not all of them are entirely sure of what they’re getting into.
The thing is, soon after that, the movie takes a turn. We begin following Tressa, a young cheerleader from Texas who after enjoying her first few months in the industry, goes back home to visit her parents and breaks the news of her job to her disapproving — yet fairly calm, to be fair — mother. Tressa’s boyfriend — whom she met while already doing porn and initially approved of her job — also thinks she should quit the industry. The uncomfortably soap-opera-esque conversation that ensues with cheesy dramatic overtones shatters any illusion that this is an honest, agenda-less depiction of the facts.
The biggest problem with Hot Girls Wanted is that its approach is very reality TV-styled, often hitting emotional strings with a judgmental vibe. There’s a strong sense that the events and decisions taken by the performers were affected by the narrative the producers wanted to take. In true reality television fashion, the experiences are factual, but that authenticity is driven and shaped by the people behind the camera.
The film’s intention is very clear: Showing the negative aspects of an industry that feeds off young girls who don’t know what they’re doing. But they show that through carefully picked storylines that cater to their agenda, while milking the guilt-ridden judgment of family and friends. There’s no sign or mention of sex-positive porn, nor an intention to move the spotlight towards those performers who do enjoy their lifestyle in the business, and have a better grasp of the process.
Parks and Recreation actress Rashida Jones, who produced the movie and contributed a song to the soundtrack, has been a vocal critic of the industry and not coy about her side on the matter. “This would be a whole different conversation if women were like ‘we were having sex, we love it so much. We want more of it. We feel so good about our bodies and ourselves,’” Jones said during a panel at the Sundance Festival. “[But] it’s performative. It’s fulfilling a male fantasy.”
The point that a lot of porn opponents seem to be missing is that it’s a personal choice, and while Jones wouldn’t necessarily opt for that, others — with different backgrounds, sets of skills or realistic career options — might find this to be a great move. Granted, it often isn’t, but the freedom to make their own decisions is a huge part of why people choose porn as a career path. The problem is deeper than just one “bad decision”. For a lot of these girls, their prospects weren’t exactly promising to begin with. Many of them see the industry as an escape; from their families, their current meaningless jobs, or their frustrating hometowns. Every woman is different, and their ability to enjoy, cope or be comfortable with the job and its conditions will vary significantly from one person to another. This is not something Hot Girls Wanted is ready to acknowledge.
If the movie did a better job focusing on the perspective of each person, we’d probably get a much clearer picture. For instance, in Reynolds’ mind he’s been “killing it” when it comes to money and respectability. Many people would not be thrilled with Riley’s gig, but if you’re a dude in your mid-20s and all you want is to kick back in Miami Beach while being surrounded by porn stars, his job sounds pretty damn spectacular.
In the same vein, for an 18-year-old girl making $8.25 an hour at a dead end job that she hates, without other enticing possibilities available, earning up to $1,000 for a few hours of porn sounds like a no-brainer.
The idea is not being apologetic — there’s definitely some fucked up shit in certain parts of the industry. Also, porn is not necessarily “just another job”, as its boundaries when it comes to consensual sex can be blurry at times, and it can take a much higher emotional toll than other professions. Porn is not for everyone; but as many hard-working performers who have been critical of Hot Girls Wanted have pointed out, this is not exactly a transparent take on the industry.
The best documentaries are those that just capture their subjects without leading them towards the filmmaker’s intention. Once an agenda is very clearly on the table, it’s hard to sell an unbiased point of view. The problem is that when you promote something as a documentary — as opposed to a reality TV program — people tend to take it quite seriously; they see the festivals that screened it, read the praise on a couple of websites, and they are ready to believe it like gospel. People love to show outrage; it’s why being politically correct has never been more relevant; it’s how you get millions of people thinking Michael Moore is some kind of charitable soul.
Hot Girls Wanted shows an ugly side of the adult industry and undoubtedly some of its points are reasonable, but their approach is nothing but preachy, and that waters down its strongest arguments. Many young women have taken charge of their porn careers, and marketed themselves on their own terms to great success. It would be great to see those reflected in a documentary that paints a more accurate and fuller picture of an industry that is usually judged only by its bad stereotypes, especially when the portrayals the mainstream gets to see are usually just like this one.
Hot Girls Wanted blames an entire industry for exploiting young women, but does the same thing by cheapening their stories and framing them into cliché poster scenarios to support the producers’ agenda.
That’s the problem with outspoken self-righteousness: It can always reflect its own ugly ways.