Sundance Film Review: ‘Hot Girls Wanted’

Documentarians Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus follow young women in the amateur porn biz.

An intimate and ultimately harrowing peek inside the world of amateur porn, “Hot Girls Wanted” will shock and outrage audiences in equal measure. Just maybe not in the numbers some might think, given the staggering statistics on how many people already view the scores of online clips that use naive young women as so much grist for the mill. Filmmakers Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus adopt a slick but respectful approach, shrewdly playing the subject’s titillating elements to their advantage. That could make the pic one of the year’s hottest doc titles, a position that the film’s considerable substance would duly reward.

Former print journalists making their second feature, Bauer and Gradus follow five different young women active in the bustling Florida porn scene (most are 18 or 19 years old, though one two-year veteran is 25 and already a “MILF”). But it’s 19-year-old former cheerleader Tressa who provides the film’s primary arc. From her excitement at getting into the business all the way through to her disillusioned exit, the co-directors managed to find a perfect representative for so many girls seduced and ultimately exploited by a ruthless and entirely unregulated industry.

The documentary’s revelations will come as an eye-opener for many parents, the kind that hopefully inspire frank and honest conversations with their kids. According to the film, any young woman with an Internet connection and a longing to escape her present situation can get into porn. It may sound extreme, but the filmmakers draw on their reporting backgrounds to build a potent case backing up the claim.

Sleazy opportunists like Riley, the 23-year-old Tampa “talent agent” who reps Tressa during the span of the film, post ads on Craigslist offering free travel and other perks (“hot girls wanted,” natch) and have no trouble finding takers from all over the country. These aren’t just aspiring actresses pretending to be the girl next door; they’re literally the girls next door. The only legal requirement is to prove you’re over 18, and you’re in.

“Hot Girls Wanted” also conveys how much modern technology has changed the porn biz — not just in the ease of both access and production (basically any rube can shoot a sex act on a phone and label it art and therefore “free speech”), but also the self-promotional culture created by social media. At a time when self-esteem is determined by likes, friends and followers, the quickest way to boost a social profile is through sex appeal. As 19-year-old Michelle says of her transition from nude Twitpics to filming hardcore scenes: “I do it anyway, why not?”

In a point the film hits perhaps a bit too hard, when teen girls see celebs like Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj using their bodies to build their careers and “break the Internet,” it sends a pretty clear message. Vapid reality shows and “celebrity” sex tapes only add to the mainstreaming of porn culture.

While the film keeps the background of most of the girls a mystery, the directors follow Tressa home to shoot footage with her parents and understanding boyfriend, Kendall (who enters the film about halfway through). What they find demolishes the cliche of porn stars coming from broken, unsupportive homes.

All the girls interviewed on camera assert their own agency and feelings of empowerment about working in porn, but the directors also capture moments of doubt, discomfort and even fear — especially as the film segues into its most disturbing stretch, exposing the degrading and apparently all-too-common subgenre of staged abuse videos. Throughout the pic, the filmmakers are able to communicate the extreme content without including any X-rated footage (the only nudity is brief and relatively discreet), a decision in keeping with the compassionate treatment of the interviewees.

“Hot Girls Wanted” doesn’t propose any answers or solutions. It’s more about shedding light on something people either prefer to ignore or are all too happy to indulge in without thinking about the human beings behind the fantasy scenarios. The film isn’t stridently anti-porn, but it does make a persuasive case that the girls who choose to enter the industry should do so with their eyes wide open, and deserve more protection than they receive.

While Bauer and Gradus captured all the footage and interviews themselves, Brittany Huckabee’s role as producer, writer and editor suggests she was equally instrumental in shaping the powerful final product. Kinsey researchers Debby Herbenick and Bryant Paul provide welcome context with factual information that appears onscreen at regular intervals. And producer Rashida Jones contributes an original song, “Wanted to Be Loved” (performed with Daniel Ahearn), a rare doc tune that doesn’t feel gratuitous.

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Sundance Film Review: 'Hot Girls Wanted'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 2015. Running time: 84 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Two to Tangle Prods. presentation. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Rashida Jones, Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus, Brittany Huckabee. Executive producers, Abigail E. Disney, Gini Reticker, Chandra Jessee, Geralyn Dreyfous, Barbara Dobkin, Daniel E. Catullo, Evan Krauss. Co-­producers, Debby Herbenick, Bryant Paul.

Crew: Directed by Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus. Written by Brittany Huckabee. Camera (color, HD), Gradus; editor, Huckabee; music, Daniel Ahearn; sound, Bauer; sound edit, Margaret Crimmins; re-recording mixer, Greg Smith; graphics, Ben Kim; associate producers, Kat Vecchio, Daniel Raiffe.

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