Pleasure for Sale (review)

Hey, prostitutes are people too, okay? There’s real horror here: the “gals” of the legal Nevada brothel the Chicken Ranch don’t ever get to leave the premises, we discover in Episode One of this six-part Sundance Channel documentary series, except for three hours once a week to visit a doctor for their regular recertification as STD-free. But their near-incarceration is all but forgotten as filmmakers Joe and Harry Gantz, who made HBO’s similarly voyeuristic Taxicab Confessions, let soap opera take over. Catfights as the “girls” compete for customers? You bet. High drama as medical issues plague one “gal”? Of course. The problem isn’t that the Gantzes aren’t sympathetic, or even that their apparent thesis that these “girls” are people who deserve our respect isn’t a worthy one: it’s that the upshot of the whole deal is still turning these women into commodities, except instead of being packaged as sex toys for paying customers, they’re being packaged as objects of fascinated pity for us. Almost to a one, these are women living on an edge, with histories of rape and abuse and uncertain futures in which renting out their bodies is the only prospect they have for surviving at anything above a subsistence level. (The johns, to a one, come across as deluded idiots who actually fool themselves the “gals” feel anything for them, but at least they get to go home at the end of their “dates.”) The women are stronger and more together than you might expect them to be, but there’s nothing the least bit sexy here, and in fact, I was left with a distinct sense that the series’ perspective is rather akin to that of the preacher here who thinks he’s being “helpful” and “Christian” toward the “whores” (his word), and instead comes across as insulting and condescending. (Forty minutes of deleted scenes are the only bonus materials.)

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