My car is the second-shittiest one in the parking lot. I unfold myself from it as a big SUV pulls up adjacent. The woman who gets out is half my age and, in heels, almost my height. She’s also here for the party, but it’s on the other side of the building and we don’t know each other. I hang back and make a phone call so that she can make the journey without the shitty-car-having old(er) dude bugging her. It would be different if it were five years ago and she knew me as
Gram Ponante: America’s Beloved Porn Journalist
but it’s not, and she doesn’t.
I’m here for the fourth annual AVN House Party. I used to work for AVN 16 years ago. That means that, when I started writing about the adult industry for a sort-of living (I describe that living as like the first 24 hours after a vampire bites you when you’re neither living nor dead), a girl was born to a pair of loving parents that are now quite concerned about her and, in two years, I might ask her a question about Greta von Fleet that I think is current and we’ll both feel uncomfortable but only she will be naked.
AVN is different today than when I met it. The very concept of AVN is different. When I worked at AVN, the building it occupied was an unmarked one-story slab where the secretary answered the phone “Corporate Office.” Now they say “AVN Media Network.” And there were no parties in the building. In fact, it was kind of a boring place to work. There’d be parties in Vegas for the annual convention, but it seemed like in Chatsworth the whole company felt the need to lay low, as a counterpoint to the very graphic and in-yo-face industry it covered.
In that time of my life, I was kind of comfortable with that level of shame.
But not now. At the front of the building, atop which hangs a big AVN sign, there’s burly, bearded, black-clad security personnel checking wristbands, there’s Porn Ladies clacking around the parking lot taking selfies, there’s an open bar, a DJ, dancing girls, a step-and-repeat, roving photographers, a sign on the door, decades of magazine covers in the reception area, boobs falling out of dresses, and all of this right across the street from the courthouse. It’s like the Upside-Down except things prolapse Up.
It’s a different world and I’m not sure I can still navigate it.
There are hundreds of people here, and I decide to count the ones I know. I’m hoping to get to ten. Someone with an iPad checks my name on the guest list, someone else affixes a wristband to me (my first adult industry event wristband in four years) and says with genuine warmth: “Have fun!” as I walk in.
The first person I recognize is Mark Spiegler. This is great! He’s my favorite agent. I did a series of stories about him and the model house he maintains for some defunct publications. “And Angela White’s here!” he says. “She was your last interview.” Is that true? I’m not sure. But I was always impressed with the things that Spiegler knows. I see Angela White, who’s always delightful, direct, and present. I’m glad she still has her Melbourne accent even though she’s lived almost full-time in Los Angeles for three years.
[I am just back from lunch and I read what I’ve written so far. It reminds me of a particular type of porn writing that just pissed me off when I first got into the business. Lots of porn stars recognizing the writer instead of the other way around, very self-conscious. And now I’m doing it. Let me switch gears.]
My purpose in going to this party, in hitting up some old friends and potentially making some new ones, is to see if I’m still interested. Well, obviously I am, but is there anything here for me to do? I’m also at the other end of some relationships in which porn factored in some fateful decisions. I mean, I’ve also been a park ranger, a bus driver, a coder, and never did any of those occupations figure into why someone would or would not date me like porn has. Some people are really into it, some are interested, very few are indifferent, and some are upset and scared. At this point, a significant part of my professional and social life has been mixed in with this business that is constantly forgetting about and at war with itself, so I’d better pick people that at the very least can hang.
As I move through an oval pattern of rooms I eventually talk with 17 people I know and avoid two that I never had much time for. I talk to a gorgeous 6-footer named Meghan whose last name I forget because I am simply not on my game. I take exactly two pictures, and none with my phone, because I remember how, in 2009 or so, people with camera phones at adult events just looked like amateurs to me. But now I’m walking around with my Canon banging against my rib cage and some helpful woman taps me on the shoulder to hand me the lens cap that popped off. I’m ridiculous.
I get into some heavy discussions with people I dig, some of whom are performers, directors, or other writers. This is the meat of my evening. I learn that, more than anything, the introduction of “cams,” sites that allow performers to have one-on-one or many-on-one chat or video sessions with fans, has changed the fabric of the industry. Tonight’s event and open bar are sponsored by MyfreeCams, in fact. Camming allows performers to control their money in a way they hadn’t had access to before. A director tells me that Christy Mack made $60,000 in a week camming when she returned to the business, long post-War Machine. I have not verified this.
The same director also saw camming and services like OnlyFans as innovations that were ruining the business for people like him.
“I can have someone booked and now, because of camming, she just doesn’t show up,” he says. “She thinks she’s famous.”
“But can you get famous camming if you don’t have the porn movie background?” I ask, naively, because that is definitely the feature dancer model: A stripper can be a “house girl,” go and make a few porn movies, and then come back as a feature dancer and be guaranteed thousands of dollars more. And it is the smart feature dancer who is kind and gracious to the house girls of the clubs she visits.
“No, you can get famous just camming,” he says.
So that’s different. And I can see why directors of videos might be scared.
I talk with another person I admire, an editor, and ask off the record what’s keeping the business afloat.
“Well, Mindgeek owns everything,” she says. Mindgeek is the Netherlands/Montreal conglomerate that, through different names, a decade ago began acquiring catalogs, building tubesites, and becoming Porn Valley’s main employer from thousands of miles away.
“Do you and MindGeek play nice with each other?” I ask.
“MindGeek wouldn’t even notice if we didn’t play nice,” the editor says. “They’re that big.”
AVN has gone through two owners since I worked there, and the new owner, Tony Rios, has turned the magazine into something much more consumer-friendly, like the Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair of a generation ago, with matte pages and charts—actual sales charts—in the back. How accurate these charts are, what sources are consulted, and when or if money changes hands in their compilation is always going to be a concern for anyone following the adult industry, but the point is that the magazine, with its “classy,” boobs-only nudity, reframes the magazine as something sex-adjacent. It is edited well and proofread. In one recent magazine there’s an article about Bisexual Porn by 90s Details phenomenon Anka Radakovich.
With its multiple owners and major stylistic changes recently, it is tempting to say that AVN doesn’t quite know what it needs to be in order to survive.
But who does? We’re all struggling, Man.
It’s a few weeks later and I’m sitting by the bedside of a friend of mine, who is in hospice care. His name is Roy Karch. During the 80s and 90s, he was a prolific porn director. He was one of the first pornographers to shoot on video, having produced and directed a Betacam cable access show in New York, “The Underground Tonight Show,” before he made the move to Los Angeles, was a production assistant to John Cassavetes on “The Killing of A Chinese Bookie,” and slowly worked his way into the pre-legal adult business via sales. Karch directed hundreds of movies for studios like Hustler and Adam & Eve, as well as for dozens of companies that no longer exist, before the business slowly squeezed him out.
Also visiting Roy that day was director Will Ryder. Roy had given Ryder an early gig in the business when Ryder supplied music for one of Roy’s productions. Now in possession of multiple AVN and XBiz awards, Ryder has consistently bankrolled much of Roy’s care.
I became friends with Roy after my first Adult Entertainment Expo in 2003. Holding court at a table at the Grand Lux at the Venetian, Roy told me, “It’s different than it was. Porn isn’t a license to print money anymore.” Over the years I’d hear versions of that lament from anyone who’d been in the business for more than half a decade.
Roy drifts in and out as I talk with Will.
“People aren’t buying the big movies anymore,” he says, telling me about some drama with a company that has censored “all the good jokes” out of his latest movie. “People used to say that Mainstream [entertainment] was getting more porny, and that was great for us, but now porn is trying to be more mainstream and failing.”
And here it comes–
“It’s different than it was.”
At the party I talk with Tommy Gunn, a stalwart performer from New Jersey (when Amy Fisher made her porn movie a decade ago, she was especially fond of Gunn. “He’s a paisan,” she told me) who has recently diversified his portfolio by building custom apocalypse cars. “I send them to Burning Man,” he says. But what about porn? How’s that aspect of your career?
“If it weren’t for the Stepfather [niche], I wouldn’t be working,” he says.
It’s different than it was.
I don’t have my new business cards so I take a bunch of numbers on my phone. There’s a BBW from the south, in for the week. There’s a guy who’s shooting a lot of Virtual Reality stuff who is also a fan of Tommy Gunn (“he can stand still and maintain an erection when we’re shooting from above his head”), there’s a woman whom I know to be an escort who simply refuses to talk about it on the record. “But whyyyyy,” I say. “It’s fascinating.” “It’s also illlllegal, DOY.” she says.
On the way out there is a woman with her boobs hanging out on the Spiegler couch. The old me would have taken that picture but the new me needs to get home and walk his dog.
My tank is low so I stop by a gas station. As I’m filling up I realize it’s the station where Kyle Stone worked near the end of his life. Kyle Stone was a guy who wasn’t necessarily a star but who had worked steadily throughout the late eighties and nineties, often for Roy Karch. In his own “It’s different than it was” speech to me, Stone often talked about the book he wanted to write, “From A Skill To A Pill,” about how male porn stars “these days” need Viagra. But not Kyle. Stone died a year ago last week at age 54.
As I head home on the 118 I think about how fleeting things are in this business, and often how sad. I had a bunch of “Where Are They Now?” conversations about people whose paths and mine had crossed meaningfully and affectionately. Often, when people leave the business for whatever reason, they opt not to leave a forwarding address, and that’s as unfortunate as it is understandable.
But one thing I’ve learned about myself is that it’s rare that I ever truly leave things behind, for better or worse. I’ll get over that awkward Greta von Fleet conversation somehow because, you know, even as the ancient and venerable pillars of the porn world are crumbling, I will always be in possession of the most important thing: My Massive Male Gaze.
But how to monetize it? It’s different than it was.