Judge Chris Claro submitted this review in a plain brown wrapper.
Pictures from some exhibitionists.
A good documentary offers viewers access to a heretofore-unseen world. Whether it's the rarefied air of a high-fashion monthly in R.J. Cutler's The September Issue, or the political machinations exposed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker in The War Room, the eye of a strong documentarian can airdrop viewers into unfamiliar territory and acclimate them immediately to the lay of the land, no matter how esoteric the subject matter. One would think that the world of pornography would offer a similarly compelling backdrop for director Michael Grecco's Naked Ambition: An R Rated Look at the X Rated Industry. One would think.
Facts of the Case
Set in Vegas during the weekend of the 2006 AVN Adult Film Awards and Expo, Naked Ambition: An R Rated Look at the X Rated Industry focuses on Grecco's mission to shoot portraits of both the icons of porn and the Joe Sixpacks who stand in line for hours to meet them. Rife with the requisite shots of dewy tartlets, leering lechers, and the seemingly ubiquitous Ron Jeremy, Naked Ambition is Grecco's attempt to play the pornography-as-free-speech card, showing just regular folks who express themselves through public fornication.
In painting the picture of porn as one big happy family—going so far as to characterize Jeremy as the "mentor" of Best New Starlet nominee Sunny Lane—Grecco, naturally, elides the sleazy underside of the business: the drug use, exploitation, and abuse of young girls who come to L.A. to be part of this supposedly upstanding industry. As far as Grecco is concerned, smut is all about consenting adults, the privacy of their own bedrooms, and the First Amendment, professions of which he expresses in some of the most amateurish narration ever heard.
Grecco is, after all, trying to publish a book of the portraits he's shooting, so sugarcoating the business serves his interests. But by doing so, Grecco misses an opportunity to show the irony inherent in glossing up pornography. His endless comparisons of porn actresses to Hollywood stars—Janine is "the Julia Roberts of the industry;" Jesse Jane is compared to Jessica Alba; Tera Patrick is the Cindy Crawford of smut—emphasize Grecco's willful ignorance of the fact that most women in the porn industry are not icons of empowerment, but figurines with a limited shelf life and zero opportunities beyond sex work.
And those are the successful ones. For every Joanna Angel—the Grecco-described "punk rock princess" with 79 titles in the last five years, according to iafd.com—there are a hundred, or five hundred, girls working in sleazy, desperate conditions for little money. Despite Sunny Lane's claim that winning an AVN award makes you "totally respected in the industry," the fact that Grecco glosses over the negatives of a business rife with them makes his documentary disingenuous—and worse, boring.
Riddled with image upon image of lacquered vixens, tat-covered "directors," and pervy conventioneers, Naked Ambition is repetitive and uninspired. Grecco's nominal throughline—to photograph the two "hottest names in porn," Larry Flynt and Jenna Jameson—is anticlimactic, as the two icons are only too pleased to pose; the only real tension in the film comes in an exchange between Grecco and porn actor Evan Stone, winner of the 2008 AVN Award for Best Group Sex Scene for Debbie Does Dallas Again. Stone refuses to sit for a Grecco portrait, feeling that if the photographer is going to be paid for the work so should the subject. If the scene proves anything, it's only that skin-flick divas can be as obstinate and self-absorbed as their mainstream counterparts.
Shot on video, Naked Ambition: An R Rated Look at the X Rated Industry looks as slick its Vegas setting, which is fitting, seeing as there's a seediness to the whole affair, depicted most overtly in Grecco's photos. Though he's ostensibly going for "art," his overlit, lurid compositions have a tawdry quality that befits the subject, the event, and the city in which it takes place. The audio is acceptable, with a good balance between the ET-style interviews on the convention floor and the intimate moments with porn stars waxing nostalgic about their first three-way or group scene.
In the end, Naked Ambition is as dreary and pedestrian as its punny title. Consenting adults or not, Grecco's subjects are fringe players who doth protest way too much about the wonderfulness of the porn industry, but their rah-rah cheerleading in support of it is more sorry than celebratory.
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