Thousands of young women a year pursue careers in professional amateur (or "pro-am") porn, chasing dreams of glamour, money, fame, self-empowerment, and great sex. But as the performers profiled in Hot Girls Wanted discover, the reality may be something else entirely.
Directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus and produced by Rashida Jones, this intimate documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was released on Netflix on Saturday. (There is no X-rated content in the film, although there is minimal nudity.)
Tressa, a 19-year-old former high school cheer captain from Texas, sees porn as an "easy escape" from the doldrums of her hometown. She connects with Riley, her 23-year-old pro-am agent, on Craigslist, where he finds new talent by posting ads seeking models.
"Every day, a new girl turns 18, and every day, a new girl wants to do porn," Riley says. "I will never run out."
He flies his prospects out to Miami, puts them up in his five-bedroom house (which is perpetually strewn with women's clothing and beauty products), and coordinates their bookings. Riley's so-called "teenyboppers," marketed under the name Hussie Models, are mostly between the ages of 18 and 21. At 25, Jade — who performs as Ava Kelly — has already been rebranded as a MILF.
Off the clock, the women play with Riley's puppy, joke, swap war stories, watch Drake videos, smoke weed, and enjoy the occasional Jell-O shot. It's not unlike a sorority, or an adult-themed version of Pitch Perfect.
But this business thrives on fresh meat. As veteran adult performer John Anthony puts it, a female porn star's "shelf life" usually proves fleeting.
"Worst case scenario? One to three months," he says. "All right scenario, three to six. Best case scenario, if she doesn't catch onto the game, a year, tops."
When the mainstream jobs inevitably dry up, these women turn to niche, fetish-oriented videos, which may be violent or of a nature that the performers find personally unsettling.
For example, Jade is the subject of the film's most disturbing footage. She gives a "forced blowjob" — a brutal form of fellatio, with the explicit goal of making the person performing it vomit — and withstands a slew of racist insults while filming a video for a series called Latina Abuse. It's very difficult to watch, even in the sanitized form that the documentary presents.
Eighteen-year-old Rachel's (a.k.a. Ava Taylor) discomfort is palpable on the set ofVirgin Manipulations, in which her character is reluctantly seduced by a middle-aged family friend.
"As long as you have boobs, and a vagina, and ass, that's all the matters," she observes. "They don't care about who you actually are."
Later, Rachel relates the frightening story of a shoot where she found herself unexpectedly requested to perform a forced blowjob, alone on set with a man and his camera.
"I was scared. I was terrified," she says. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know if I could tell him no."
Tressa's boyfriend and mother implore her to quit porn, and after four months, she finally does. In that time, Tressa — who at one point developed a Bartholin's cyst on her labia, the result of having too much sex — estimates that she made $25,000, but left the industry with just $2,000 in her bank account.
As seen in the doc, women perform in three to five scenes a week, earning an average of $800 for each, but that money disappears quickly. Expenses include lingerie, nails and makeup, STD testing, and their agent's 10% fee.
Although they're regularly screened for disease, the documentary's subjects' apparent ignorance about contraception is startling. Tressa tells her mother that she doesn't use any form of birth control. After filming a scene that climaxes with her partner ejaculating inside her vagina (part of the appeal of filming porn in Miami is that, unlike in California, performers aren't legally required to wear condoms), Michelle is dispatched to a pharmacy by producers to pick up the morning-after pill.
"Plan B always works, I guess," she says, "I don't know." (Taken within 24 hours of unprotected sex, Plan B is 95% effective. There is no "always.")
Critics of Hot Girls Wanted have rightly pointed out that the filmmakers' suggestion that sexualized images in the media (Nicki Minaj twerking in the "Anaconda" video, for instance) have troublingly "desensitized" our society feels off-base, even old-fashioned. And as Mike Hale writes in the New York Times, Bauer and Gradus sometimes struggle to find the right balance between "respecting the right of their subjects to make the choices they do while abhorring those decisions."
But the final product, while far from flawless, is nevertheless deeply affecting. It's a harrowing portrait of an industry in which women are essentially disposable.
RELATED: Fusion explores the increasingly diverse ways people are consuming - and producing -porn, from GIFs to live "camming" to teledildonics. Watch our original investigative documentary, Miami Porn: Sex Work in the Sunshine State, a look inside the world of South Florida's booming adult entertainment industry:
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.