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Wham bam

Porn star documentary a sloppily told tale

?July 28-Aug. 3?
?GSU's cinéfest?
?University Center

We've become so used to hearing declarations of female empowerment and self-determination through sex work in recent years that it feels embarrassingly retro and politically incorrect to disagree. Who are we to challenge a woman's claims that she's entering into her work clear-eyed and informed? Annabel Chong (born Grace Quek) is the subject of Sex, a documentary about her personal life as a University of Southern California gender studies major and her professional life working in So Cal's porn industry. One of a new breed of women who see their careers in the sex industry as part of a crusade to challenge cultural perceptions about female sexuality, Chong speaks passionately, if not always persuasively, about her work in porn.

But Chong's behavior tells a very different story than her aspirations for gender transgression. Chong made her most significant mark in porn for a novelty stunt in which she starred in the "world's largest gang-bang," a video recounting her 10-hour marathon sex session with 251 strangers who showed up to have sex with a porn star.

Viewers expecting titillation from the scenes of the filming of the gang bang will probably be disappointed by the reality on the set. Chong's claims of empowerment are never less persuasive than when yet another anonymous, giggling or eerily blank-faced man takes his turn having sex while Chong's face contorts in obvious pain. As disturbing as the feigned bravado Chong puts on during the event are interviews with the porn movie's "director," a prime piece of slovenly, bottom-feeding industry sleaze named John Bowen, who calls Chong a "babbling idiot" and who makes porn star Ron Jeremy, who provides commentary for the gang bang, look like a knight in shining armor by comparison.

The initially investigative, revealing inroads that documentary makers made in the '60s and '70s have given way to a new breed of documentary typified by Sex, in which the filmmaker's "objectivity" is used to hide a prurient, often exploitative and sloppily conceived investment in the material. In the hands of someone far more accomplished, like Nick Broomfield, that willingness to stand back and let participants hang themselves with their own words and actions works well.

But in an incompetent, novice filmmaker's hands, that gloss of neutrality can be disastrous. First-time director Gough Lewis is not only a fly on the wall, he's a participant in Chong's self-destruction; his camera seems to goad her to new excesses as when he records Chong cutting lines into her flesh with a knife in an effort to "release the pain." Viewers are left to their own devices in making a connection between Chong's self-mutilation in this scene and the self-abuse of her sexual marathon.

In a typically lazy, dim inability to draw connections, Lewis simply breezes over Chong's gang rape at age 19 in London as just another sexcapade. And rather than interrogate Bowen about how he allowed Chong's gang bang "cast" to perform without HIV testing and often without condoms, or why she still hasn't been paid $10,000 for the stunt, Lewis remains silent. He clearly relishes the access to this scene more than drawing any conclusions or finding any insight into Chong or the industry. He approaches both with a smug, often smirking dismissiveness.

Sex makes one question the fundamental conceit of our revelation-fixated society: that showing something is akin to healing, catharsis or instruction. Revelation can also be a negative, ruinous act, a way to feign concern a la Jerry Springer, while capitalizing on others' misfortunes.

And Chong ultimately pays the price. Her motivations, her personality remain as unclear at the film's conclusion as they were at its beginning. In interviews like one she did for the Web magazine Nerve, Chong is articulate and convincing. In Sex, she comes across as unfocused and dopey, weepy or drunk and unable to coherently articulate her objectives. One is left with the slimy, contaminated feeling common to time spent watching the parade of human abasement and self-important tongue-clucking of Jerry Springer (whose image opens the film), of somehow having rubbernecked and contributed in some small way to Chong's on-screen belittlement.

The film is a dehumanizing document of what comes across as a dehumanizing industry. Lewis has clearly used the novelty value of the gang bang and people's curiosity about the event to draw in viewers, and in this way he is no different from the industry knuckle-draggers he presents in Sex.