Hot Girls Wanted makes its agenda clear from the start, both with its cover image of the faceless woman on a bed and the early montage of famous female bodies displayed suggestively in music videos and magazines. Sexual commodification is bad, porn is bad, and our current cultural state is dangerously exploitative for “girls.” These are taken as truths so obvious they don’t need to be proven, so, accordingly, the film unfolds without evidence of critical thought or durable insight. In introductory, scaremongering text about the increasing popularity of “amateur” porn, we’re told, “‘the girl next door’ is being replaced by the real thing.” What is this supposed to mean? That porn performers of the past were natural born sluts delivered fully formed from single standing homes in the desert, instead of cheerleading daughters from sleepy towns in Texas? “It’s fake,” Jade, one of the featured women, says of her porn performances. “It looks like it’s much rougher than it is.” But rather than acknowledge how these women understand themselves to be actors, the filmmakers would rather push the same message in the marketing of the porn they criticize: naïve, barely-legal teens are going to be destroyed by sex.
Therein lies the most noxious truth about Hot Girls Wanted: it replicates much of the exploitation it implicitly condemns in porn. How careful were the filmmakers about the future of these young women while forever linking their real first names and hometowns to their faces and stage names? What type of care was taken when convincing a teenager with just over a week’s experience in the industry to speak to a documentary crew about her brand new work? The movie omits footage of any genitals, but the camera hovers around the edges of the most graphic moments of porn scenes, and peeks into one woman’s post-work shower with the curtain and towel positioned just so, plenty of skin still in view. In the aforementioned montage near the start of the film, celebrity bodies are objectified to an even greater degree than in the original sources: images are chopped up, sped up, and streamlined into relentless flesh without dialogue or context.
The only positive outcome of predictable, lazy films like these is, as Alana notes, the raw footage, which inevitably tells a story too complex for those behind the camera to recognize. The overall picture that emerges of Hussie Models, both the female talent and male manager, is one of stagnation and directionless-ness thanks to failures of society at large. All were dissatisfied by the circumstances of their old lives, and the Miami porn scene is where they hope to start anew. These are not wide-eyed women ignorant of what they’re about to do, nor is the man in charge a malevolent misogynist. (We see him worrying that if he tells Tressa to get into better shape to make more money, she’ll “start making herself throw up or something.”) The women often marvel at how nice everyone on set is, particularly the men. While the photographer making jokes about his boner will certainly anger some viewers, most behind the scenes clips reveal normal people — the other actors, make-up artists, and directors — trying to lighten the mood in a situation that could otherwise inspire self-consciousness and nerves.
What unifies these young people — Riley, the manager, is only 23 — is their rejection of the financial immobility offered by traditional labor channels. None of the industry’s players mention debts or onerous financial obligations; instead they focus on the idea of “escape” from their small towns, of lives bigger and more exciting than anything minimum wage service gigs could offer. They don’t want to go to college, get married, or live like their parents. “I was a dishwasher at Outback,” Riley tells us while listing his current assets. “Now I’m basically the shit.” He doesn’t have sustainable financial success; he’s almost certainly in debt for his sports car and his barely furnished home. But on paper, he has objects that signify success, and that’s what matters to him.
Sex work is work, first and foremost, and everyone entering porn hopes to make a lot of money. But focusing only on the financial angle elides the degree to which most of the people, in this particular film at least, are looking for purpose, a way to feel valuable and powerful. Without role models outside the world of entertainment, a grasp at fame seems the best way to achieve this. “I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do,” Rachel says of her time in Miami, which consists of occasionally riding in expensive cars and getting high. Tressa, the film’s main character, repeatedly refers to the lifestyle offered by porn as fun and desirable, but ultimately “selfish.” This is a poignant recognition of the emptiness that comes with a ride on the hedonistic treadmill, but who can blame any of these folks for wanting to give it a try? Nothing in larger culture indicates that making and spending excessive amount of money may not be all it’s cracked up to be. (“Porn is expensive,” Tressa tells us near the end of the film. “I made $25,000 in four months… By the time I left, I only had $2,000 in my account.”)
These women are not innocent children — they are determined and intelligent adults starting to make lives for themselves — but they are relatively powerless in that they are inexperienced and unprotected. The documentarians clearly want the audience to hate consumers and male makers of teen porn, but much of my ire was reserved for the politicians who saw to it that these women had no education about the Plan B they took after a creampie shoot; the pop culture tastemakers who hammer us all with the idea that a woman’s highest calling is to be fuckable; and every conservative, including self-identified feminists, who worked to stifle conversations about and representations of sex that could help us move beyond the regressive depictions of female (and male) pleasure found in the porn these performers are hired to create.
There cannot be a person left in America who is unfamiliar with the “porn is bad” message, so HGW’s ultimate goal is unclear. Did the filmmakers simply want to spread the tired gospel, reiterate what we’ve all already heard? Yes, some porn is abusive, or more accurately, some abuse is carried out in the guise of creating porn. And yes, some women (and some men) surely regret all or parts of their time spent performing in porn. But who or what is to blame for this state of affairs? Can it be changed, and if so, how? Answers — and even the right questions — are not within the purview of this film.