Sex Life in L.A.

Germany 1998

Reviewed by Paul Julian Smith


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

A documentary shot in Los Angeles in 1996 which features nine men who have come to the city in search of fame and fortune. Matt Bradshaw is an award-winning porn star. Patrick is a vagrant who sleeps in his car, unless he can scrape together the money for a motel. Rick Castro is a photographer and film-maker specialising in portraits of male hustlers. John is an ex-porn star who has entered a programme to beat drug and sex addictions. David is a hustler, working the street and hoping to break into modelling. Cole is a real-estate agent, hoping to perform in a porn movie. Tony Ward is a famous model, featured in Madonna's music video 'Justify My Love'. Ron Athey is a performance artist, better known in Europe than in LA. Finally Kevin Kramer is a minor porn star who now works as a model and escort. The film follows these men at work and play over a period of two months.


Can we ever see enough of the gay sex workers of California? The press screening of Sex Life in L.A. took place on the same day as the Channel 5 documentary series about pornography, Sex and Shopping, covered the theme. Jochen Hick's film also follows hard on the heels of Ronnie Larsen's documentary Shooting Porn and shares cast members with Bruce LaBruce's feature Hustler White. All this interest is paradoxical, however. As in the case of Italo Calvino's fictions, Invisible Cities, we now have an exhaustive guide to an area which remains off limits to UK viewers. The brief action sequences of Sex Life in L.A. are considerably harder than anything certified by the BBFC for distribution here.

Exotic as it is, 'pornotopia' remains curiously familiar. Hick (director, producer and cinematographer) offers well-worn images of the metropolis: cars cruising the freeway at dusk; wide shots from the hills of the valleys below. To an outsider this urban geography can seem parochial. John offers as proof of his redemption the fact that he has swapped the cruisy, competitive gyms of West Hollywood for suburban Silverlake. It is a renunciation unlikely to impress the homeless black hustler who is shown working out in a public park.

Unlike Shooting Porn, which featured leisurely interviews with such minor celebrities as director and drag queen Chi Chi La Rue, Sex Life benefits from quick cutting. The large cast of characters is economically introduced during the opening credits. By cross-cutting between them, Hick holds the viewer's interest and makes some telling points. Blond bombshell Kevin is juxtaposed with shaven-headed Ron Athey. Hick cuts from bronze bodies sporting in the sun to the bloody members displayed in Athey's lugubrious performance piece. There is a literal 'visual hook' at this point, with the cables from which Athey's pierced flesh dangles leading into the telegraph wires of the street below. This editing style creates at least an appearance of narrative development. If the film's outcome is predictable (Kevin gets a fur coat from a satisfied trick, the less fortunate down-and-outs simply disappear) then the success story of the level-headed Matt is nicely balanced by the morality tale of substance-abuser John. It is not the least of the film's ironies, apparently invisible to its protagonists, that John's rigorous 12-step programme is so clearly a substitute for the frenetic sex-and-drugs schedule from which he has escaped. And even here in the alcohol-free juice bar ("Fruit smoothie, please") the waiter is trying out as a model.

Hick, the director of Menmaniacs (a documentary on the leather competition scene), might have made more of this theme of performance. A model of reticence, he never appears on camera, although we frequently hear his undemanding questions. The only moment that is clearly restaged is John's admittance into rehab, which he recounts himself in voice-over: a chauffeur takes him to the hospital in a stretch limo. Elsewhere role-playing is more problematic. Matt is shown impersonating "a jaded porn star" in his latest release; and while we only glimpse Kevin having "real sex" with someone he claims to care for, Tony (who confesses that sex is an "anti-climax") obligingly comes for the camera. Such self-display is always tinged with insecurity. Tony has been famously dumped by Madonna; Matt "feels fat"; and Kevin, his optimism momentarily dimmed, waits pathetically by the phone ("16 million people in the city and nobody calls"). When, describing the "pressure" of gay life in LA, Kevin says, "We're all superficial", it seems less a lament than a simple statement of fact. While all of the characters repeat the litany of "I want to be special", the few that might lay claim to that status are those who have survived years of living with HIV. As Athey puts it, "People who have never suffered have no texture."

There is a gritty texture to Sex Life's minor characters, haunted transients who "just keep moving". It is an area that the film does not care to explore. Back among the "eye candy", however, there is a final paradox: the backstage documentary, motivated by the same desire to see and know that fuels pornography, bursts the bubble of erotic fascination. In spite of their desire to be different, after 90 minutes in their company, sex workers seem quite as dull as the next gay guy.


Filmed by
Jochen Hick
Ingrid Molnar
Music/Music Performer/ Producer
David Harrow
©Galeria Alaska Productions/Jochen Hick
Production Companies
Galeria Alaska Productions present a film by Jochen Hick
Funded by Hessische Filmförderung für Wissenschaft und Kunst
Location Manager
John Baltimore
Production Consultant
Douglas Lindeman
Matt Bradshaw
porn actor/hairdresser
Tony Ward
Cole Tucker
real estate agent/porn actor
Kevin Kramer
model/escort/porn actor
Patrick Morgan
David Kendall
casual workers
John Garwood
ex-porn actor
Rick Castro
photographer/film director

Ron Athey
performance artist/writer
Billy Dare
Tony from Acapulco
Josh Durken
David Harrow
William S. Fry
Doug Thompson
Billy Hoye
Damian Hardy
Jeff Clymer
Martin Crowl
Matt Easton
Gino Colbert
Kyle McKenna
Mr Ed
Claudia Gill
Ron Athey
Darryl Carlton
Crystal Cross
Bernard Elsmere
Julie Fowells
David McClemont
Brian Murphy
Myers Rifkin
Theresa Saso
performers of The Trojan Whore and Deliverance
Michael Sullivan
not submitted
Dangerous to Know
8,100 feet
90 minutes
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011