Louis Theroux: Twilight of the Porn Stars – review

The documentary maker re-examines the porn industry 15 years after his first flirtation with the subject. It makes for a fascinating, if unsettling watch

imagenotavailable1

It’s been 15 years since Louis Theroux spent one of his Weird Weekends exploring the world of porn, and things have changed rather radically in the interim. Louis has shaved off his sideburns for one thing.

Advertisement

But more importantly, the once-booming adult industry is now in decline, there are far fewer freaky, extreme movies being made and newbie performers are these days advised to think of porn as a part-time job rather than a fully-fledged career.

In keeping with Louis’ more recent films, many of which have tackled serious social issues, this was a far more sensitive programme than the documentary he made in 1997, and in Twilight of the Porn Stars, Theroux manages to shed light on both the reasons for the industry’s decline and the psychological impact of porn on new and experienced performers alike.

So, why is porn currently in the doldrums?

Well, like the music business’s much-publicised woes, the answer lies with the internet and its seemingly limitless supply of on-demand pornography. Indeed, one veteran porn director interviewed late on in the film flat-out accuses free-to-access YouTube-style free porn sites of “killing” the industry.

In response to porn’s increased accesibility and consumption online, producers have reduced the volume of their output and are nowadays making lavish films targeted at couples instead of pumping out zero-budget gonzo movies by the dozen.

As director Rob Black says (appearing to have mellowed somewhat after enthusing about “rape films” in Louis’ 1997 documentary): “It’s acceptable to watch porn; it’s acceptable to sit down with your girlfriend or your wife and introduce them to pornography.” 

Another change to the industry since Louis’ last visit is in the widespread use of drugs to do away with the awkward business of porn actors “finding wood,” which so greatly fascinated Theroux in 1997. Nowadays performers just pop a Cialis or Viagra before a scene and no longer have to worry about rising to the occasion.

That’s not to say overcoming this one particular source of anxiety has made porn stars any happier. Meeting up with JJ Michaels, who talked about having a “death wish” in Louis’ first porn documentary, Theroux discovers that family tragedy was the reason for Michaels’ choice of career and his later decision to quit.

Similar stories are voiced by many of the performers interviewed in Twilight of the Porn Stars, with this undercurrent of misery most poignantly underscored by the suicide of one of Louis’ former interviewees, whose death is investigated as a through-line for the documentary.

The strain that porn places on performers’ emotional well-being is dissected in some detail too, and Louis learns that many porn stars have difficulties leading ‘normal’ lives while working in the industry.

Of his inability to form meaningful romantic relationships, 40-year-old porn star Tommy Gunn (pictured with Theroux, left) says: “It’s not normal to leave somebody you love to go and have sex with somebody you don’t.” 

Indeed, one thing made abundantly clear throughout the programme is that porn stars need interests outside the porn world in order to retain some element of normality in their lives.

Many of the interviewees tellingly describe themselves as aspiring musicians, film-makers, academics or TV personalities rather than porn stars, suggesting their yearning for acceptance from the regular, non-porn world.

And if they haven’t anything else to focus on besides porn?

Well, one interviewee openly discusses their former “fast life” of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” vividly describing the hell of drug addiction and the dire consequences of self-medicating to ease psychological pain.

While the documentary isn’t entirely without hope, and indeed showcases some apparently well-adjusted people making friends and having a good time in an industry where they feel accepted, the film carries with it a pervasive sense of gloom. But, make no mistake, this is a fascinating documentary exploring what is still, to many, a taboo.

Advertisement

Adroitly handled by Theroux and his production team, Twilight of the Porn Stars is probably the best and most interesting programme he’s made since Miami Mega Jail. It’s on BBC2 on Sunday 10 June, and anyone with an interest in either the porn industry or the real lives of its performers would be well advised to tune in.