Judge Patrick Bromley once paid $5 for a tossed salad. It had cherry tomatoes, garlic croutons, and ranch dressing, and was quite tasty.
It's not just sex, it's a profession!
Like the tagline for its release on DVD, the HBO America Undercover documentary Cathouse goes well out of its way to convince the viewer that prostitution is not sex, it is business. It repeats this assertion ad nauseum until we're almost convinced. Almost.
The documentary is an hour-long profile of Nevada's Moonlight Bunny Ranch, essentially a legal, "upscale" brothel, and its owner, a blowhard by the name of Dennis Hof. We get to watch as the girls report to work, undergo their weekly physicals and STD screenings, haggle with customers, take tea, and hang out during their down time (read: time not spent having sex for money). We get to meet Working Girls like Sunset Thomas, an adult film star chastised by her own industry for making the leap from porn to prostitution, and Airforce Annie, a former armed services veteran with a predilection for self-stimulation. We get to watch as a pair of brothers bargain for sex and settle for something far removed; as a competing pimp attempts to woo one of the girls over to his stable; as a married couple treats themselves to an anniversary present; as a mother pays for her son to lose his virginity. Because the hidden cameras are only allowed to tape the negotiations, there isn't any actual sex in Cathouse (though its follow-up documentary, Cathouse 2: Back in the Saddle, would not adhere to the same guidelines); it's talked about incessantly—in fact, it seems to be the only thing talked about—but never seen.
What's most surprising about Cathouse is that it manages to be not only compulsively watchable, but mildly entertaining, too. Yes, each individual subject interviewed is profoundly uninteresting and shockingly one-dimensional, but added altogether the group serves as a kind of fascinating study in psychology—observing as everyone attempts to rationalize their profession of choice, or the way that they desperately strive for "normalcy" (Really? A weekly tea party??) makes for some intriguing television. The show requires that we not judge its subjects—doing so would force us to dismiss it instantly—and accept them on their own terms. Of course, the folks featured in it would have it otherwise; not only should they not be judged, but also respected and even admired for their business skills. And good business it is (let's face it, these gals are richer than I'm ever going to be), but that doesn't change the fact that there's more to it than just the business aspect; try as the girls might to convince us that what they do is purely professional, they're not fooling anyone. Look, I couldn't care one way or the other about prostitution, but I also recognize that it's not simply a business like any other—there's a reason these women have to go to one state out of fifty to practice it legally.
And therein lays the compelling dichotomy of Cathouse: it's all a put-on. The girls are trying to convince themselves of one thing, while trying to convince their customers of another; on top of that, they try and convince the documentary cameras (and the at-home audience) of something else—the lies pile on top of one another on so many levels that eventually the truth (or it's pesky sidekick, reality) have no place in the proceedings. The director of Cathouse, Patti Kaplan, ought to be searching to expose what's Underneath It All, but she's too busy being a willing participant in the deception; she's as much a conspirator in pushing this false agenda as anyone else involved in the project. As filmmaking, that's pretty shoddy work. As a case study of both the psychology of the hooker (I'm sorry—"businesswoman") and of the documentary worker, though, it's fascinating stuff. The trick is to be able to look past every surface being presented to you and formulate your own opinions and conclusions, but then that's the trick to all art—even cheap, dishonest art like Cathouse.
HBO delivers the DVD of their Cathouse special in a no-frills, perfunctory package. The show is presented full frame, and the shot-on-video image looks crisp and bright. A traditional 2.0 stereo track is provided in both English and Spanish; the dialogue is audible and balanced nicely with the music, making for a track that's passable but unremarkable. The only extra included is a few minutes of bonus interview footage with Dennis Hof, who is able to spout off a few more ridiculous pearls of wisdom ("Any guy that says he hasn't paid for sex is lying!") and further cement his status as a jackass.
The Cathouse special (and its sequel) must have been successful when it aired on HBO, as it's now a 10-part weekly series for the cable channel. I can't imagine the show being terribly interesting, as it would seem that most of what can (or at least will) be said about the Bunny Ranch has been covered here. There won't be any in-depth examination of what it means to be a prostitute in today's America, or even a look at the real dynamic that exists at the Ranch—just more play-acting on both sides of the camera. For a channel that prides itself on groundbreakingly honest programming, HBO sure has wasted an opportunity with Cathouse—their coverage amounts to little more than an advertisement. If I wanted to watch a commercial for prostitution, I'd watch MTV.
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• Bonus Interview Footage with Dennis Hof
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