Lords, Lies and Videotape Part 10: Ho’-ray for Hollywood

How do you make the transition from porn stardom to a so-called “legitimate” acting career?

You do it by posing as a poor, abused child, victimized by evil pornographers.

As Ron Jeremy wrote in Adult Video News: “Isn’t it nice that such a sweet kid can make so many career moves, make so much money, beat her IRS rap, her fake passport felony rap, and at the same time bury an entire industry! Only in Hollywood!”

Below is the conclusion of SKINFLICKS, Chapter 12: The Goddess.

To Jeremy and others with ambitions in the non-porn film world, the most grating result of the Lords affair was how it opened Hollywood to her. No longer was Traci a scarlet woman too steeped in shame for the wholesome sponsors of American television and silver screen. Now she was an innocent, a child-victim.

As usual, Traci played her role well. “At that age, you don’t really understand what you’re doing,” she said. “You don’t really understand the consequences.” She claimed that producers kept her stoned on drugs and her agent got most of the money she made.

Hollywood bought her act. Aaron Spelling was reported to have paid $100,000 for the rights to her life story. Traci appeared in the TV series’ Wiseguy, MacGyver, and Married with Children. She starred in the sci-fi / horror film Not of This World. She got roles in the feature films Fast Food, Shock ’em Dead, A Time to Die, Raw Nerve, The Object of Desire, Laser Moon and the John Waters comedies Nutty Nut and Cry Baby–which AVN editor Gene Ross called “a poetically apt title.”

To the industry that made her show biz success possible, Traci showed no gratitude. Instead she made the most damaging claim of all: that those she had worked for knew she was a minor.

“She tells us that she was told to just get some kind of I. D.,” D.A. Reiner said. “And that was done with more a wink and a nod than any serious effort to determine what her real age was.” Was this allegation true?

With the strict penalties–forfeiture of assets, long prison terms and six figure fines–for using underaged models, pornographers run like hell from those whose age is questionable.

In the wake of the Lords mess, young-looking starlets Nikki Charm, Ali Moore and Kristara Barrington were ostracized upon the first hints of rumors that they too were underaged.

The positive long-term effect of the Lords crisis was the increased awareness within the industry that porn video’s lure of quick riches attracted sexually precocious kids. As minors, immune to prosecution, they had nothing to lose if discovered.

Pornographers could lose everything. Contending that knowledge of Traci’s age was irrelevant, Federal attorneys initiated felony prosecutions. The adult movie industry braced for battle.

x x x x x x

By the early 1980s, a bond of good faith had formed between L.A. legal authorities and sex moviemakers who’d agreed to refrain from depicting rape, scatology, hardcore S and M, bestiality, use of minors and the depiction of minors by adult performers.

Consequently, when the Lords bombshell exploded, L.A. authorities gave the adult industry a chance to escape prosecution by immediately removing all Lords products from commercial circulation. To the amazement of police and prosecutors, the gargantuan task was completed almost overnight.

Government prosecutors went ahead with their test cases, under the Federal child pornography statutes. Agent South and producers Ronald Kantor and Rupert McNee won acquittals, but the Government got a conviction against Ruby Gottesman of Xcitement Video.

Then Gottesman’s conviction was overturned, and the statute that allowed conviction without proof that the defendant knew the performer was underaged was ruled unconstitutional. The Government appealed.

In the 1990 United States v. Thomas case, the Ninth Circuit Court had ruled that even if a defendant thought that the performer in question was of legal age, the Government could obtain a conviction.

Finally, on November 29, 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Federal child porn law, while ruling that prosecutors must prove defendants had prior knowledge that a performer in question was underaged. The industry breathed a collective sigh of relief–but Rubin Gottesman didn’t; his conviction was upheld. The prosecution had presented evidence that Gottesman had sold hardcore Lords tapes to an undercover L.A. vice cop in 1987, by which time Lords’ former underaged status had become common industry knowledge.

There have been at least two more underaged actresses since the Traci Lords affair. I videotaped one of them.

Flushed with the afterglow of her sizzling debut in a Blacks and Blondes loop, a cute newcomer named Gigi (porn name Penny Nichols) gushed that she could now afford a $1500 pearlescent paint job with burgundy pinstripes for the ’69 Chevelle she’d just bought. Then she let it slip that her big concern now was passing her driver’s test.

Gigi’s mother complained to police that the girl was only 16 years old. On March 9, 1987, charges were filed against Jerome Tanner and agent Reb Sawitz. The veteran agent produced copies of a birth certificate and temporary driver’s license, which showed Gigi’s age as 19, exonerating Sawitz and Tanner under California law.

An underaged model scandal almost on the scale of the Traci Lords affair erupted in 1991, when Diane Stewart, a Canadian girl with the porn name Alexandria Quinn, appeared in over 70 videos before her 18th birthday.

Once again, tapes and magazines were frantically yanked from the market. Once again, real-appearing fake IDs precluded California prosecutions. And, once again, the industry had proven vulnerable to the deceit of a beautiful teenager.

x x x x x x

The Traci Lords scandal and the Government’s “War on Porn” did for sex movies what controversy always does. Adult tape sales soared from a wholesale value of $350 million in 1985 to almost $450 million in ’86. (With the uproar dying down in ’87, sales fell to $390 million.) It must have rankled the members of the Meese Commission to read Jerome Tanner’s taunting, “We need another report like that one.”

The industry needed another Traci Lords too–a legal one. With the entrenched copycat ethic, it was only natural to find a clone.

“She’s a deadringer for Traci Lords,” said Jack Michaelson of Cinderella Distributing. “Barbii has the fabled Traci pout down to perfection. Everybody’s crazy about her look.”

Barbii even spoke like Traci: “I’m a perfectionist and I don’t feel comfortable looking at myself.” In less than two months, out came Introducing Barbii, Lusty Desires, Backdoor to Hollywood, Barbii’s Way, and Spend the Holidays with Barbii. Penthouse lined her up for four different spreads.

Barbii’s wasn’t the only nouveau pout. In 1987 it seemed like half the new adult video boxcovers fixed the customer with a petulant stare and the best bottom lip the cover model could manage. One actress–whose career was brief–even called herself “Staci Lords.”

The industry’s love-hate affair with Traci continued.

Surfacing a half-year after the scandal erupted was the only hardcore Traci Lords movie made after she’d turned eighteen. It was that phantom Paris production Lords and Dell had denied shooting.

Released by Caballero Distributing, the sardonically titled Traci I Love You provoked calls for a boycott, but instead became the best selling and renting adult tape of 1987. “When a statuesque French blonde named Monique uses her mouth to shove a black dildo into Traci,” wrote reviewer Thomas McMahon, “it seems like old times.”

That old warhorse Honi Webber galloped back into battle with her High Times Video release Traci’s Big Trick, which “tells the whole truth for the first time…from high school to Penthouse to her agent’s office.” Lords, played by Jaqueline Lorians, is shown having sex with “Guy Sadler” (Sy Adler) and with Honi Webber–played by slim Sharon Mitchell in a bit of casting against type.

In Traci Who?, “it’s 1991 and President Meese wants to outlaw pornography,” went Peter Keating’s December ’86 AVN review. “Traci Who? may be the only title on the adult market to exist simply so that someone could get a dig in on that wretched turncoat Traci Lords.”

The rancor lasted for years. When Lords promoted her exercise tape at the 1988 VSDA Show, AVN quoted an “industry director” as saying, “I’m surprised she wasn’t met with a chorus of Uzis.”

When I last saw Tom Byron, he was at a 1989 trade show, looking for work behind the cameras, not in front of them.

“What’s Traci up to these days?” I asked him.
Byron shrugged. “Who the hell cares?”

# # #

 

“You’re Going to Make a Lot of Money with This Book” Yeah, right…

People who read early drafts of SKINFLICKS told me I was going to make a lot of money with the book. And at first it looked like they were right.

SKINFLICKS: The Inside Story of the X-Rated Video Industry had a great start: a publishing contract and a $7,000 advance from Zebra Books. Maybe this was the start of something big.  And why not?  After all, SKINFLICKS chronicled a revolution in the porn movie business in which yuppies replaced gangsters, porn queens became corporations, porn became suburbanized, and the U.S Government declared a massive “War on Porn” that threatened even R-rated movies with prosecution.

I was qualified to describe this revolution because I helped lead it.  After learning the business as a filmmaker for “the biggest Mafia porn outfit on the West Coast (FBI quote),” I launched Superior Video, Inc. and pioneered the first full-length X-rated movies shot entirely on videotape.  My story entwined with that of the porn video industry.  As the documentary filmmaker Alberto Cavalcante wrote, “To make a film about the post office, make a film about a letter.”  In SKINFLICKS, I became the letter.

When I first entered the porn business, I began an audio cassette journal with the goal of someday writing about my experiences.  By the time I sold the rights to Superior Video’s movies, after 12 years in the industry, my audio journal had reached 347 cassettes.  I put my money into high-interest investments that would support me while I wrote.

After I sent out book proposals to those who had responded to my query letters, things happened fast. Within a couple of months, I had an agent who almost immediately landed the book contract.  I bought a Mac Quadra (1993 version) and happily plunged into stories of fast-track superstars, porno stage mothers, porn-addicted vice cops, burnt-out studs, obsessed fans, pompous porn barons and other denizens of this twilight world.  I wanted to answer the most frequent question asked about porn:  What are these performers really like? My answers came from casting them, bargaining with them and directing them.

In describing the sex action, I tried to avoid wallowing in graphic details, some of which—of course—were unavoidable.  Above all, I reminded myself that SKINFLICKS was not a pornographic book; it was a book about pornography.  I thought I did a good job of making the distinction.  So did the editor at Zebra Books, who examined every word.

When the galleys (review copies) came out, one went to Paul Fishbein, publisher of Adult Video News, the “bible of the porn video business.”   Fishbein called SKINFLICKS  the best and most realistic depiction of the modern world of pornography written in book form to date…”  (Later, the Internet created a whole new “modern world.”) Adult superstar Nina Hartley also read the manuscript and made suggestions.

Just as I was anticipating book tours, readings, book signings and maybe even an appearance on Oprah, the publisher dropped the book. Why? The reason—I learned—was a storm of bad publicity in the wake of Madonna’s book, Sex.  Publishers were afraid of anything remotely suggestive of pornography.  My agent, who had so quickly landed the Zebra Books contract, spent many months trying again to sell SKINFLICKS with no success.

At least I got to keep the advance.

Next Post:  From Porn Pioneer to POD Pioneer: When Authorhouse Was a Baby

 

 

The “Smut Glut.” How the Porn Movie Industry almost Destroyed Itself Part 1: Stupidity

The distributor was screaming obscenities so fast in his New York accent that my office manager, Allyssa couldn’t understand him.  She had phoned to ask when Superior Video could expect overdue payment.  Between F-bombs, Allyssa managed to learn that the man’s partner had just been murdered. Sixteen .22 slugs in the head—the result of a much more serious unpaid debt.  Another of Superior’s distributors had just lost his warehouse to “arson.” (“For the insurance,” Allyssa guessed.)   And Ferris Alexander of AB Distributors in Minnesota, also in arrears, was preoccupied with the aftermath of an anti-porn demonstrator immolating herself in one of his bookstores.

In 1986, the porn video business became afflicted with three crises: the Traci Lords scandal (Chapter 12 in SKINFLICKS), the newly-declared War on Porn (the fried demonstrator being an extreme manifestation of the hysteria) and—the worst of the three—the “Smut Glut,” for which the industry had only itself to blame.

(Passages from SKINFLICKS are in italics.)

We were entering a time of rip-offs, lawsuits, arsons, and even murders; a time of bitter price wars, when even large, long-established companies would go bankrupt; a time when production of big-budget X-rated motion pictures would end.

The cause?  The same thing that had made Superior Video, Inc., successful.  We were the first to shoot full-length adult features entirely on videotape, with budgets of $20,000 instead of the $60-70,000 it would cost to shoot the same movies in 35 millimeter film.  For the first half of the 1980s, we produced hits like All the King’s Ladies, Physical, Night Moves, Running Wild, Chocolate Cream and our most lavish production, Deviations ($35,000 budget).   Our philosophy was to create adult movies as good as the 1970s “Golden Age of Porn” films. (Such as The Opening of Misty Beethoven, Sex World, and Behind the Green Door.)   When our competitors discovered the ease and economy of shooting in videotape, they didn’t share Superior’s philosophy.

Instead, they followed the pornographer’s dictum: If it works once, do it a thousand times. They began cranking out cheap videos.  Adult Video News noted that the number of porn video releases soared from 400 in 1983 to 1100 in ’84 and 1610 in ’85.  The market couldn’t absorb them all.  “There used to be 25 new titles a month and the store owner would buy 15 or 20 of them,” lamented VCA’s Russ Hampshire. “He’s still buying the same number of tapes, but now he has hundreds to choose from.”   Retailers began buying those 15 or 20 videos based on price alone.  As prices plunged, so did pornographers’ profits.  Companies had to crank out more titles to maintain their cash flows: a vicious cycle.  Something had to give, and that something was quality.

“What’s the difference between the old silent 8 millimeter loops and the video features of today?” asked reviewer Steve Austin in the February ’91 AVN issue. His answer: “The guys take their sox off now.”  

In the mid-‘80s, director Bruce Seven groaned, “What kind of quality can you turn out in two days?”  By 1993, the “one-day wonder” had become standard, and AVN editor Gene Ross recalled Seven’s earlier complaint: “Seven, as any other director in the business, would probably kill for that kind of latitude nowadays.”   Then, even one-day wonders became too expensive.

Henri Pachard was forced to crank out three features in one day! (Not as impossible as it sounds: the trick is to shoot three separate dialog scenes with the same cast on each setup, to fit three separate stories.)  

The demand for tons of titles at micro-budgets led to the Stallion Productions debacle of 100 titles in thirty days, after which the producers and their tapes disappeared without paying cast and crew.  AVN’s Gene Ross made the sarcastic prediction that “thanks to new Japanese technology that actually condenses time, some adult video company will hit on the brilliant concept of producing 100 videos in thirty minutes.”

As the downward vortex continued, porn companies resorted to cutting out production entirely.  The “Smut Glut.” Part 2: Scams will discuss “wraparounds,” re-titles, Hollywood rip-offs, Disney lawsuits, “borderline” child porn, bankruptcy epidemics, and desperate promotions such as pubic hair in cassette boxes.