There is a scene in Julia St. Vincent’s documentary “Exhausted: John C. Holmes, The Real Story” in which Holmes is making a movie on a mansion lawn. As action is called, we see the timestamp on the clapperboard: June 27, 1981, or four days before the Wonderland murders. Holmes, described in several accounts as utterly drug-addled at that time, was still in demand on porn sets.
It is one of the many reasons why “Exhausted,” while undoubtedly a hagiography made by an adoring fan, is such a necessary film and a great snapshot of the time.
“I haven’t watched ‘Exhausted’ in 15 years,” says St. Vincent in downtown Los Angeles, where her 1981 documentary was screened last Friday night for an audience at Rare Bird Lit, a cavernous downtown bookstore and performance space. “Most of the copies out there are pirated.”
St. Vincent is in town from San Diego to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the film with a rare public showing. She is joined by an even more rare sight: Bob Chinn, director of the first several “Johnny Wadd” movies that made Holmes a star and, most recently, the author of “Flesh of the Lotus: A Johnny Wadd Novel,” had driven in from Albuquerque for a simultaneous book-launch party.
(“And I’ll be driving back to Albuquerque tomorrow,” says Chinn.)
Save for the family of former porn performer Rhonda Jo Petty (who performed in several movies with Holmes and left the porn business in 1986) and myself, the average age of an audience member at the “Exhausted” screening seemed to be north of 50. But even though the majority of today’s porn performers hadn’t been born when this movie was made and may not have heard of most of Holmes’ co-stars, they’d recognize the conflict at the heart of his appeal.
I hadn’t realized “Exhausted” had been parodied in “Boogie Nights” until this weekend.
In the 1997 P.T. Anderson film (featuring a cameo by Nina Hartley), Amber Waves, the character played by Julianne Moore, produces a fawning documentary of the John Holmes-esque Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg).
St. Vincent ran a video distribution company and was a girlfriend of Holmes in his complicated private life. “Exhausted” gives Holmes ample time to spin elaborate fictions about himself, unchecked and unquestioned (except by Chinn who, in one sequence, reminds Holmes that No, Holmes did not block his own scenes, Chinn did). Holmes deflects questions about his education and past, and claims to have serviced 14,000 women, which is an impossibility.
But, even as Holmes reveals himself to be a world-class Tool (in every sense of the word), we have to cut him a lot of slack: He was great at being a porn star, and his costars, such as Seka, give him glowing reviews.
“Best lay I’ve ever had,” she says in the documentary. And if you can get several dozen women to say that about you, well, you might act a little douchey, too.
Porn is such a game of overcompensation (for respect, for “mainstream success,” for love) that it would be very difficult for Holmes, the acknowledged king of his world, to be humble. Although he does say his penis is “bigger than a breadstick, smaller than a compact car,” we get the feeling that the line is well-rehearsed and that he did not have the sense of humor about his job that would have helped him keep things in perspective.
At the peak of his porn career, for example, Holmes lived in a modest courtyard cottage in Glendale with his wife, Sharon. He and Sharon, a nurse, earned extra money by serving as building managers of the complex.
(The courtyard at 1010 Acacia Avenue was torn down and replaced by this apartment building. None of the elderly residents I asked knew who Holmes was, but there is a 2-bedroom apartment available if you want that Wonderland-adjacent experience.)
Aside from the interviews, which are priceless, the collected sex scenes in “Exhausted” are beautiful. Holmes took his time with his partners, and it’s refreshing to see so many natural, fleshy beauties again, including Petty, Seka, and the perfect Annette Haven.
But don’t expect to see a legal copy of “Exhausted” (which had a theatrical run in 1981, as Holmes himself was running from the law) on a local screen soon.
St. Vincent says that seeing pirated versions of “Exhausted” cropping up make her “sad,” and that she sends out a lot of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notices. But when I ask her if she has plans to re-release the movie, perhaps a softcore version for Netflix or Hulu, she is reticent.
“It’s a lot of work,” she says. “And not a guaranteed return.”
After the movie is screened, Chinn is introduced by Jill Nelson, co-author of the oral history “John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches.” Chinn remarks that the first “Wadd” movie cost $750 to make, but its success allowed future budgets to balloon to $7,500.
Chinn demures from reading from “Flesh of the Lotus,” which was released earlier this year. He lets an audience member do the honors.
“I don’t like public speaking,” he says.
It was explained to me a few years ago that it is impossible to understand Holmes’ charm if you didn’t know him personally. It’s also difficult to understand it 30 years after “Exhausted,” where his schtick seems transparent and desperate. Porn is dated that way.
But there can be no argument that Holmes was famous for a reason, and this loving documentary is worth watching.
Previously on Porn Valley Observed: John Holmes & The Wonderland Murders; An interview with Bob Chinn; John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches (review, interview with authors, purchase link); The Road through Wonderland: Surviving John Holmes (review, interview with author, purchase link)