Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On and American Playboy offer a compelling viewpoint on porn

Rohini Nair

Sep,28 2017 09:00 31 IST

(Editor's note: Hugh Hefner, the founder of America's iconic men's lifestyle magazine Playboy, passed away at the age of 91 on 28 September, 2017. We are republishing this piece, which discusses the last ever chronicle of Hefner in Amazon Prime's American Playboy series, contrasted with Netflix's Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, which looks at the porn industry today — as shaped by Hefner and others like him.)

I wonder what Hugh Hefner would have made of Riley Reynolds.

Reynolds is the 27-year-old owner of Hussie Models, an agency that provides male and female talent to the adult film industry. He signs up men and women who're interested in working in adult films, gets them bookings, shepherds them around photo-shoots and film sets, promotes them on social media and his website; he may even provide them a place to stay. On occasion, he acts in these films as well — although he's really an entrepreneur whose ambition is to build the biggest adult entertainment website in the US. His girlfriend is the performer Gia Paige; Riley's mom is supportive of his work in the porn industry, while his father is not.

Riley Reynolds was one of the central figures of the critically acclaimed (but also controversial) 2015 documentary Hot Girls Wanted. He's back now, in its spin-off — Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On — currently streaming on Netflix; there are six episodes and Riley's is the fourth (titled 'The Money Shot')  in the series.

A still from Netflix's Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On

A still from Netflix's Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On

If Hot Girls Wanted had a decidedly scruffier Riley, picking up and dropping off the rotating cast of five or so women (all adult actresses) who would share rooms in his home, then in Turned On, we see him looking far more prosperous. He's moved up in life, Hussie Models has expanded its roster.

Riley — to his father's consternation — dresses up, well, like a pimp. His favoured baseball hat has huge gilt letters spelling 'PORN' stuck above the peak; his t-shirt has a spoof of the Kellogg's logo, it proclaims 'porn flakes'. And while his 'look' may appear entirely casual, it's probably as well thought out as that of Hugh Hefner's.

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Hefner, who turned 91 in April 2017, has his own show too.

He's the star of American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The series details how Hefner started Playboy as a 27-year-old and expanded its scope far beyond the men's magazine it was originally meant to be, into a brand that now enjoys global recognition (even if the publication itself no longer enjoys the huge subscription numbers it once did). American Playboy uses archival footage of Hef (as he is popularly known) and interviews with his old associates and family members (his daughter Christie Hefner, who headed Playboy for 20 years before stepping down in 2008-09; Cooper Hefner, who took over as chief creative officer at Playboy Enterprises recently), interspersed with cinematic recreations (Matt Whelan plays Hugh Hefner) across its 10-episode span.

Watching the first two episodes, what I found most startling wasn't the nudity or sex, but seeing Hefner work as — an editor! For anybody who was born after the '80s, the image one has of 'Hef' is that of a snowy-haired figure in a red smoking jacket/dressing gown, with a bevy of women (all blonde, all surgically enhanced) flanking him. This caricaturised version of Hefner has been in existence for so long now (all of my lifetime, certainly) that it does require a mental readjustment to think of him as he was in the 1950s, when Playboy was being conceptualised — young, ambitious, literary.

American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story streams on Amazon Prime

American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story streams on Amazon Prime

American Playboy offers us a glimpse of Hugh, before he became Hef — a gifted cartoonist, an introvert, who grew up in a family that wasn't physically (or otherwise) expressive in its affection. In college, Hefner was a shy student who came into his own as editor of the college magazine (where one of the segments he introduced was chronicling the 'Co-Ed of the Month'; later he would translate that idea into Playboy's 'Playmate of the Month'), married his college sweetheart, and found a job as a copy editor for Esquire, a publication he hugely admired.

His metamorphosis into 'Hef' wasn't too far off though.

Creatively stymied, sexually curious (reading the Kinsey Report had already opened up his mind to the idea that there was more to sex than what his experience had led him to believe), he decided to launch his own magazine — 'Stag Party' — which would offer men information on everything they might possibly be interested in: cocktails, fashion, gadgets, literary pieces by the finest writers of the time, and of course, sex and women. A potential lawsuit over copyright infringement led him to change the name of his magazine, at the last minute, to Playboy.

Hefner, surrounded by Playboy Bunnies

Hefner, surrounded by Playboy Bunnies

And from its very first issue —  featuring Marilyn Monroe in the buff — in December 1953, Playboy was a success. For Hefner, it wasn't just vindication for his ideas, it was also much-needed relief, since he'd pawned most of his furniture and taken a $1000 loan from his mother to make up for the shortfall in funds.

From there, the series traces the next six decades of Hefner's life: the building of the Playboy empire (that moved beyond the magazine into TV shows, clubs, events, merchandise and a brand that is still being leveraged across the world in franchise deals worth several million dollars), his transformation into 'Hef', and also his 'social justice advocacy and (being targeted) by the conservative movement, battling with the FBI and J Edgar Hoover while becoming an outspoken defender of civil rights'.

It is said of Hefner that he was always very conscious of his legacy (he has maintained over 2000 scrapbooks, which the creators of American Playboy were able to draw from) — and while one school of thought, even acknowledging his contributions to American pop culture, would classify him as a purveyor of pornography, another viewpoint sees him as ushering in a sexual revolution in the US, reducing the taboo around sex.

American Playboy takes the latter approach, and presents Hef as a brilliant maverick with a sense of social responsibility — not a surprise since the Hefner family, especially Cooper Hefner, are involved with the project.

Firstpost had a brief interview with Cooper Hefner in the run-up to American Playboy's launch, and this was what he had to say:

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American Playboy's timing isn't an accident.

In 2016, an announcement that Playboy would stop publishing nudes made waves (it reversed the decision this year). Taking NSFW content off its website had helped Playboy boost its reach/traffic substantially, it was felt that a similar approach might bring more advertisers to the magazine. The magazine itself, which once enjoyed a circulation of 7 million, at its peak during the 1970s, had been struggling in recent times (its total circulation figures for 2016 are reported to be around 673,473). Playboy was hit by changes in both the industries it straddled — magazine publishing, which is pretty much in decline; and adult entertainment, which has been hit by the proliferation of free porn on the internet.

The Playboy Mansion — the site for the famed Playboy parties, with Playboy Bunnies in attendance — was put up on sale last year (with the rider that Hugh Hefner would continue to stay on, for his lifetime).

'Hef' with his former girlfriends (and Girls Next Door stars) Kendra Wilkinson, Bridget Marquardt and Holly Madison

'Hef' with his former girlfriends (and Girls Next Door stars) Kendra Wilkinson, Bridget Marquardt and Holly Madison

And Hef's perennial playboy image was beginning to wear thin — there were the unsavoury allegations from former Playmates that the Playboy Mansion was more an unkempt prison than home; particularly attention-grabbing was a tell-all by Hefner's former girlfriend (and one of the three stars of his reality TV show, The Girls Next Door) Holly Madison. Then there was the flap over Hef's 'runaway bride' Crystal Harris; after leaving the then octogenarian at the altar, she did return and marry him in 2012. She was 26 at the time. Over the past decade, the main interest anyone seems to have in Hugh Hefner is whether or not he has a sex life.

So yes, American Playboy makes him seem relevant and dashing again.

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It also chooses not to examine how Playboy, and Hefner, may have acted as catalysts for the processes we see unfold in Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, and the state of the porn industry today.

Pornographic depictions have existed for nearly as long as mankind — as have the movements that opposed it. Disseminators of porn have also been an early adopters of technology, from the Gutenberg Press and still photography to VHS tapes, digital streaming, online payments, social media, the internet itself. Had Playboy not existed, porn would have found another route to becoming mainstream.

But Playboy did help.

It certainly had a role to play in the Golden Age of Porn, the time in the '70s when 'porn chic' was a thing.

It spawned a slew of competitors — chief among them, Penthouse, Hustler — and the infamous 'Pubic Wars', with each magazine trying to outdo the other in just how explicit they could make their imagery.

It shifted the focus from professional adult entertainers/performers to amateurs; the Playboy Playmate played up the 'girl-next-door' as the object of readers' sexual fantasies.

Riley Reynolds (sleeping on the couch), in a still from 2015's Hot Girls Wanted

Riley Reynolds (sleeping on the couch), in a still from 2015's Hot Girls Wanted

In Hot Girls Wanted (2015), we see a consequence of that when the girls Riley Reynolds recruits (over Craigslist, no less!) for Hussie Models are all "regular" people — teens from small towns, hoping to make it big in the porn industry, or at least make enough money in the three-month duration that seems to be the upper limit for those who aren't able to establish themselves as 'breakout stars'. While the documentary was criticised for focusing only on the negatives of the adult industry, the impression that most of these young women will have a 'use-and-discard' narrative, is difficult to shake off.

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Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On tries to present a more holistic view. In episode one ('Women On Top'), for instance, the makers follow Suze Randall — Playboy's first female staff photographer — and her daughter Holly, who also shoots high-on-glamour erotic photographs. The Randalls rue how much the industry has changed since Suze's times; money is tight, deadlines are tighter and the limits — well there are none. Holly describes how she'll never shoot 'swirlies' (where the woman performer's head is pushed into a toilet by the male actor, during intercourse), and that she may soon have to look for work outside the industry. Meanwhile, we also see in action Erika Lust — a Spanish filmmaker of erotic movies — who firmly believes that more women behind the camera in the porn industry can only be a good thing, and lead to healthier depictions of sex.

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In episode three ('Owning It'), we're introduced to Bailey Rayne, a 24-year-old adult actress who is also an entrepreneur (she work as an assistant agent, recruiting new girls into the business). Bailey mainly performs solo acts; she is a 'camgirl', spending hours engaging with fans, stripping for them etc from her bedroom, over her webcam. The episode features another successful camgirl, Salena Storm, and one of Bailey's new recruits, a girl named Bonnie who engages in increasingly reckless behaviour as her stay in the industry progresses.

In (what I found) significant imagery, we see Bailey picking up and greeting girls in the same way that we saw Riley (do) in the 2015 Hot Girls documentary.

Turned On, then, offers a deeper and more complex dive than its predecessor.

It too, however, has been plagued with criticism.

It emerges that the real/legal names of several of the performers were disclosed by the series makers (Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus and Rashida Jones). Footage of Gia Paige (Riley Reynolds'girlfriend) was used despite her asking the producers to remove it as she found the filming experience unpleasant; she had previously signed a release form agreeing to the shoot. Several of the positive aspects the adult performers hoped would be highlighted, ended up on the editing room floor. And Periscope clips of two performers (which would have otherwise reached a very niche audience) were used in the widely broadcast Netflix series, without seeking their permission.

Jones, Gradus and Bauer have defended their decisions, pointing out that what they've done is entirely legal — although that doesn't answer the question of whether or not it was ethical.

hot-girls-wanted

The backlash reminded me of something from American Playboy.

When Hugh Hefner is looking for the perfect model to use in his very first issue of Playboy, he simply can't find the right one. Because he doesn't have the budget (Playboy didn't start shooting its own centrefold models until some time after its launch), he does the rounds of the calendar companies, the ones that use nudes. And a stroke of serendipity leads him to the calendar company that has nude photos of Marilyn Monroe, taken when she was a struggling model and actress. In 1953 of course, she is among Hollywood's biggest stars, with films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire in her repertoire. Hugh knows what he's found is pure gold. And he uses it, putting Marilyn on the cover and her nude in the magazine, ensuring that it'll be snapped up at the stands.

That wasn't the only time Playboy used the tactic; Wheel of Fortune star Vanna White's nude photos were published by the magazine in the same way, as were actress Charlize Theron's. Both White and Theron sued Playboy, but it's a practice that has persisted and spread elsewhere: in 2014, Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos were stolen and leaked on the internet; the actress asked for such acts to be defined as a 'sex crime'.

As Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On and American Playboy stream on their respective platforms, taken together, they tell a compelling (if disturbing) story about how we got here; a story about sex, our bodies, and porn.

Published Date: Sep 28, 2017 09:00 AM | Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 10:06 AM