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“The Price of Pleasure” (2008) is a documentary all about porn. Specifically, it seeks to expose this massively profitable segment of the entertainment industry for what it truly is: profit-driven and utterly misogynist. If you didn’t already know that about porn—or the fact that many major TV networks produce and profit from it—this film might come as a revelation. But to anyone even vaguely aware of our culture’s gender-equality status quo, it isn’t terribly enlightening—it’s just a recapitulation of everything terrible about being a woman in America today. But even so, it’s both compelling and repellent, and definitely worth seeing.
The film’s writer/director, Dr. Chyng Sun, is a professor of Media Studies at NYU with a specific interest in how the act of watching porn seeps into people’s everyday actions and relationships. After introducing the viewer to the basics of the porn industry—the too-young women, the sleazabag producers, the feeding-frenzy conventions—Sun begins to ask what happens to regular people after they’ve been inundated with porn. Essentially, the film’s thesis is that it’s impossible to watch contemporary porn without internalizing its attitude towards sex in general and women in particular. Some of the male interviewees talk about how difficult it is to interact with women in real life when, through porn, they’ve been taught that all women want sex all the time, even when they say they don’t. Sun also interviews workers at a battered women’s shelter, who provide more supporting evidence of the fact that men watching porn often ends up having a detrimental effect on their real-life female partners.
While Sun’s interviews and clips from actual porn films (most of which are beyond nauseating) form a coherent argument, she neglects to examine porn at large from any other point of view. All of it seems equally evil and repugnant, enough to make you want to burn your bra, paint a placard and protest in favor of censorship. However, Sun spends relatively little time on the more nuanced aspects of her research: her analyses of racial representation and the increasing role of extreme violence and torture in contemporary porn. Had she spent less time introducing the audience to her subject and more of her 56-minute runtime deconstructing these less obvious phenomena—and perhaps connecting them to mainstream movies, television, and advertising—the film would be far more thought-provoking.
Sun also doesn’t address the issue of so-called “feminist pornography,” the existence of which would seem to go against her argument. Instead, she posits that any gain women get out of being involved in the production of porn is inherently problematic, since women are always subjugated in the porn industry, both physically and economically. (Indeed, she’s authored a scholarly paper about how women-directed porn isn’t really any better than regular porn, but this doesn’t get discussed in the film). It’s not that I disagree with her; it would just make the film stronger if these issues were explored in more depth in the actual film rather than being relegated to the “bonus feature” section.
Despite these issues, “The Price of Pleasure” is great in at least one way: it takes the most coveted of all images and deconstructs them in a way that’s impossible to argue with. As soon as the illusion of pleasure is lifted, all that’s left is horror and pain.
“The Price of Pleasure” is available on DVD at CinemaLibreStudio.com.