They Shoot Porn Stars Don't They

The following morning, I pay a visit to Jim at his Chatsworth offices in the far northwest corner of the Valley, near the foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains. The building, which sits on a relatively busy street, is remarkable only for its unremarkability. In the entry room, there’s a candy-dispensing machine. In the next room, an open box sits on a green pleather sofa. I peek inside. Two disembodied silicone breasts stare back up at me.

The sign on the ajar office door reads: “Do not ask Jim to borrow money!!! I mean it! This door must remain closed at all times!!!!”

Inside, a glass trophy case is stocked with AVN awards from the “Academy Awards of Porn” held every January in Vegas, where Powers was inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame in 2005. Once treated as a pariah, he has won his peers’ respect as a businessman who found his niche, albeit an unusual one, and made money filling the demand for it.

The bookshelves are lined with rows of binders, their crudely rendered titles scrawled upon their spines: “Black Snake Boned,” “Escape from Women’s Prison,” “DP Virgins: The Classic Years,” “Fuck Pig: The Movie,” “Garbage Pail Girls #1,” “Mouth Meat #6.” The wall shelf behind the desk is crowded with punk rock-themed tchotchkes; half-naked, bound, and kneeling female figurines; and the uniformed team members of the 1972 “perfect season” Miami Dolphins. On the desk there is a laptop, a woman’s driver’s license, and a large knife. A turquoise lace bra lies on the floor nearby.

Powers presides over this dominion, checking his email, screening his calls, and waxing philosophical. At a certain point during our conversation, I realize, after all these years, whom he reminds me of—the Joker. Not Heath Ledger’s. Not Jack Nicholson’s. But Cesar Romero’s Joker from the late ‘60s “Batman” TV series—the high-camp super-villain in white face with a slit ear-to-ear grin who shrieks with delight at the sheer genius of his own outrageous acts.

He is a third-generation San Fernando Valley son. After his parents divorced when he was in the fifth grade, he was shuttled back and forth between the Valley, where his father—an architect and “hardcore, rightwing Republican who hates what I do and will not accept it”—lived, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his mother—who, prior to the divorce, was a homemaker, and, after that, “Well, after the divorce, she became a belly dancer”—lived. His was a bifurcated comeuppance. He was obsessed with horror movies, punk rock music, and girls.

He ended up at California State University, Northridge, where he majored in business and joined a fraternity, Sigma Pi, where he became the social chairman, a position that prepared him for his future career as a professional ringleader: “I was in charge of arranging the parties.” It took him six years to earn his bachelor’s degree.

After graduation, he went into sales, which he despised. One day, he ran into a former frat brother who was earning a ton of money as a stockbroker—of sorts. Not long after, he moved to New York, where he became a “pump and dump” broker. “If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Boiler Room,’ I basically worked for that firm,” he explains. “It was a big shell game. They were manipulating stocks.” Eventually, the SEC shut the company down. He took a similar job in Atlanta. The SEC shut them down, too.

Then, he got a call from an ex-coworker down in Florida who wanted to know if he was interested in making some kickboxing movies. “What the hell do I know about that?” he wondered. Unemployed, he had nothing left to lose. Working with a partner, he raised seed money from investors and flew to Florida. But there was a problem. The feds had busted their business partner for making porn movies. “We’re like, ‘What?!’” Powers shrieks. “’We can’t go into business with a pornographer!’” And that’s how Jim got into porn.

He moved back to the Valley to pursue his newfound dream. Things got off to a rocky start. An early “Beach Bum Amateurs” shoot led to his arrest on conspiracy and pandering charges. Making a buck off porn movies in the Nineties was no cakewalk. He almost quit. But he kept at it. After a time, he started getting noticed … for his unique willingness to push the envelope. “I had a baby and a wife, I had to pay the bills somehow, and I started getting a reputation for doing these crazy things.”

To date, he has produced and directed over 500 adult movies. But, this isn’t your father’s porn. Equal parts freak show, horror movie, and Russ Meyer-on-crack, his X-rated visions are deranged, demented, mind-boggling expeditions into the dark, unexplored continent of human sexual perversity. Fascinating, horrifying, and amusing—oftentimes all of those things at the same time—Powers’ celluloid world is one populated by midgets, bald chicks, and crazed men outfitted with monster-sized papier-mâché phalluses which spew torrents of goo onto the naked bodies of supine women, movies in which everyone has sex all of the time, and in which, most of the time, no one appears to win.

Take, for example, “The Bride of Dong,” in which two young, unsuspecting women “inadvertently unleash the power and massive cock of an ancient fertility god when they decide to house sit for the summer,” the result of which is the “call[ing] forth an ancient being from another time and world who bridges the cosmos to shove his massive tool up their asses,“ and the true star of which is neither the decidedly comely Gia Paloma or Julie Night but a six-foot prosthetic penis that belongs to an onerous, fanged beast that emerges upon a full moon. (An online reviewer noted dutifully: “It's hard to possibly make anything of this, other than to say that it’s vintage Jim Powers,” adding, “I haven't seen a prosthetic dong this big since ‘Boogie Nights.’”)

To decry Powers-helmed series—like “Gag Factor,” in which women, not infrequently, hang upside down and perform oral sex on male costars to the point of gagging and sometimes vomiting; “White Trash Whore,” in which seemingly innocent Caucasian women are gangbanged by roving packs of African-American men, and for which the box cover copy reads, “Mom, Dad … I hate you this much!”; and “Young and Anal,” again, the title here is self-revelatory—as “misogynist” is almost beside the point.

In this canon, the real subject is not human sexuality but humanity itself. The products that Jim produces are videotaped vivisections, studies in which homo sapiens lie upon the operating table, the director is the doctor, the camera is the scalpel, and the only question worth asking is, How far will we go if we are pushed to our limits?

A long time ago, I asked Jim why he makes the movies that he does. He told me that when he was a teenager he had wanted to see what happened to the girl in the horror movies when the camera cut away from the action. What he had wanted was more. Hardcore, at least for a while, took him there.

By the time the millennium turned, porn was going mainstream; every red-blooded American male with an Internet connection could download porn 24/7; anybody who could afford a home video camera could declare himself a pornographer; fly-by-night production companies were cropping up across the Valley like weeds; low-budget “gonzo porno” was all the rage; and Powers’ odd brand of extreme porn was flying off the shelves. “I was turning down companies asking me to shoot,” he recalls today. He was willing to go beyond the pale if that’s what it took to entertain the masses, and for that he was rewarded. “It was like the last days of Rome,” he says wistfully. “We were in the vomitorioums.”

Then, everything changed. In 2004, “VHS fell off a cliff.” DVD sales, expected to take the place of VHS sales, weren’t happening in the now glutted adult video market. “I warned people. I go, ‘You know what? Get ready, because the fallout is about to hit. We are about to die.’” Upstart online companies like Reality Kings, Brazzers, and Bang Brothers were shooting on the cheap and slapping their product on the Internet, all in the same day. “Tube sites” were giving pirated porn away. Forget VHS. Forget DVDs. Heck, forget movies. The Valley was floundering.

Once upon a time, pornographers were kings. Now, content was king. “Everybody talks about ‘content,” Powers bemoans, disgusted. “What the fuck is ‘content’?” he sneers. “That’s what it’s turned into. Content. Even that word is offensive!” he shouts, banging his fist on the desk. “The average shooter, nowadays, he has no interest in making a good movie. He shoots content. We might as well be pimps!” he hollers, waving his hands in protest. “Pimps and whores! And we shoot content!”

His voice softens. “It’s not near as fun as it was. They’re just shooting content to fill these specs they need for some website they’re shooting for,” he sniffs reproachfully. “They’re not being creative,” he pouts. “They’re not doing anything interesting.”

I debate whether or not to point out some might question the “creative” caliber of his work, but don’t.

Either way, more trouble was coming.


They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They? Words & photos by Susannah Breslin. Logo & design by Chris Bishop. Copyright 2009 HOME CREDITS