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:: Nick Broomfield – Adventures In The Sex Trade

Nick Broomfield has been making documentary films for over thirty years now, and this DVD set is a very interesting compilation marking his development over that time.

The first film in this collection is “Chicken Ranch” from 1980. A study of a legal brothel in Nevada, it is a fascinating piece of work. The film takes place entirely within the brothel, mostly shot as a cinema verite (fly on the wall) piece of work. Through the camera the viewer gets to understand the rhythm and practices of the brothel as a workplace, and as a self-contained world in some ways. The viewer gets to know the different girls, see some customers, view the line-ups where the girls parade like human cattle, witness customer negotiations and disputes, as well as the support the girls offer each other. This is an outstanding documentary, and its sudden forced ending is consistent with it having been made by a young filmmaker with his morals still intact.

The second film is “Fetishes”, a study of a ‘Pandora’s Box’, a house of domination in New York circa 1996. “Fetishes” is in some sense a variation on “Chicken Ranch”, and including these two in the same compilation allows for some interesting comparisons. Both the girls and the customers (or at least those who were prepared to be filmed) at the Nevada brothel were mostly working class Americans (the odd plane-load of Japanese tourists aside) and mostly unremarkable apart from the unusual nature of the business they were transacting. It seemed that the girls were simply there for the money, and the customers were just there for a few bought-and-paid-for moments of sex and feminine company. The situation appeared relatively straightforward and easy to understand.

In “Fetishes”, the relations and motivations of ‘mistresses’ and ‘slaves’ (the girls and their mostly male customers) are far more complex. Although the relations between them are less sexual in a physical sense, they seem far more intense emotionally, and far more meaningful to both parties than the sex-for-money on offer at the Chicken Ranch. Both mistresses and slaves seem to come from higher social groups than the subjects in Nevada. Many of the ‘slaves’ were high-powered men on big salaries in their lives outside Pandora’s.

The glimpse at the psychology of the mistresses and their slaves offered in “Fetish” is a fascinating one. In addition to the Wall Street top guns getting off on role-reversal, there are the cross-dressers, the rubber enthusiasts and many more. Some of the slaves have unusual race-based fantasies, such as the African American with fantasies of being treated like a negro slave on the auction block, or Jewish men with fantasies of being in a concentration camp. As for the mistresses, unlike the girls in Chicken Ranch, they seem to genuinely revel in their role, and enjoy the power their slaves surrender to them.

Although it is a pleasant surprise how much access Broomfield was given to the goings on at Pandora’s Box, the nature of the establishment did have a unique benefit – once he had the mistresses on side, they could simply tell their slaves to take part in the film!

“Fetish” is an interesting and well-made documentary, a fascinating glimpse into a strange world, and well worth watching.

Unfortunately, 1995’s “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam”, really lets this collection down. This is Broomfield as what he has now become - a muck-racking celebrity-hound. Although all three of the films deal with the sex trade, this is the only one that feels sleazy. It largely consists of Broomfield chasing down various people involved with the famous Hollywood madam (and Heidi herself once she gets out on bail) during her many legal troubles. Broomfield attempts to justify this film as some kind of grand attempt to understand the nature of Los Angeles, but although it may have started out that way, it quickly became an exercise in foot-in-door trash journalism. There is an interesting film to be made about the strange city of Los Angeles with its old rich men involved with the young starlets who flock there from all over, but this is not it. In the end, “Heidi Fleiss” only serves to illustrate Broomfields fascination with the minutiae of celebrity culture and his own film-making process, something he was unfortunately to continue with such films as “Kurt and Courtney” and “Biggie & Tupac”.

Heidi Fleiss has long since faded from the news, and viewing this documentary in some ways feels like watching a decade-old episode of Entertainment Tonight - although Broomfield looks at the sleazy underbelly of fame rather than vapidly glorifying the stars of the moment, this is still a form of hype based celebrity rubbish that was of little value to begin with, and is worth even less with the passage of time.

Included with the three documentaries is a very informative career retrospective, covering Broomfield’s early films dealing with working-class slums in his native Britain, female recruits in the US military, and a variety of other interesting projects that make Broomfields fall into celebrity obsession all the sadder, given that he has the ability to make interesting films about far more meaningful subjects.

“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam” is a waste of time, but “Chicken Ranch” and “Fetishes” are both remarkable pieces of film-making. They are similar enough to be able to compare them, and different enough that they are both very worthwhile viewing. Two out of three ain’t bad.