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Amateur Porn Flourishing in Vegas, Baby, Vegas

Las Vegas- J.D. Coxxx is having trouble with Ami Charms’ corset. His arms locked around her back, the amateur porn actor is fumbling like a schoolboy with the stubborn locking mechanism that is the one thing between him and a formidable pair of 34Ds spilling in his face.

He’s muttering: “And right about now I’m looking like the dork I am…who doesn’t know how to undo a freakin’…”

“Go down, and then up,” Charms says, straddling him. She giggles. “You young guys.”

Tug. Tug. Nothing.

Fortunately, there’s not a big production crew to hold up. Just Ami’s husband, Greg Charms, who’s busy snapping photos with a digital camera, and their cat, Tigger, who wandered into the bedroom to see what all the noise was about. Indeed, this little after-hours night smut venture is no high-end L.A. photo shoot rife with attitude, ringing cell phones and expensive equipment. Rather, the casual, even cheerful goings-on are happening in a nondescript suburban house in south Las Vegas. By the time you read this, you’ll likely be able to log on to Amicharms.com and see a pictorial sequence of what happened this Tuesday night.

Ta-da. Charms’ burgundy corset magically pops off, and Coxxx can get back to work, which on this night is a regimen of heavily photographed heavy petting with Charms. The highlight is when the fortysomething blond Charms slides down to her knees and, well, has a late dinner–all while hubby snaps away with his camera.

Ami Charms has startlingly wide blue eyes and a Texas lilt in her voice. J.D. Coxxx is humorously unassuming, a front that hides the fact that, he says, he’s “bigger than the average bear. People tend to go, ‘Oh, shit!’ when they see it.”

Never heard of ’em? Of course not. They’re amateur porn workers–part-timers and lesser-knowns who are out to either make a modest living or clamber all the way up the (presumably sticky) ladder of adult entertainment. Coxxx, who works a straight gig by day, has appeared in titles such as Kneepad Nymphos 7 and Sunset Stripped. Charms, whose last day job was managing a grocery store chain in the Dallas area, makes a living selling website memberships, naughty videos and even her used panties ($25 and up).

“At first we did it for the thrill and fun of it, you know, to spice up the life a little bit,” Charms says of her and her husband’s business, which includes websites Amicharms.com and Dirtydiva.com. “Now it’s not only that, but money’s involved too.”

They’re not the only ones who’ve turned homegrown porn into profit. Las Vegas, with its newly sexified atmosphere and lively swingers scene, is a hotbed of low-budget porn. Produced everywhere from hotels to suburban bedrooms, the trend is only growing with the unabated popularity of the Internet as clearinghouse for naughty behavior. Sure, it’s no secret that several professional porn stars call Las Vegas home–from Christi Lake to Lisa Lipps to Ashlyn Gere–but what might surprise you is the number of nonmarquee names making bedsprings creak in Las Vegas. As the Internet continues its reign as a pornucopia and the very phrase “amateur” now marks a marketing label as much as a genre, Vegas’ DIY adult entertainment underworld thrives–another sliver in what some estimate is a $10 billion-a-year industry.

Yet it’s anything but an underworld. There’s little that’s sneaky, shameful or hush-hush about Vegas’ amateur porn scene. Instead, there’s a cheery openness and even a working-class pride in making and moving a solid product. Case in point: No visitor to the Charms’ home can get away without sitting down while the couple, married for 11 years, flaunts their websites with the same pride that Holly Housewife cracks open the family photo album. In fact, you might say their three-year-old business grew from a strong marriage.

“As in most marriages, there comes a time when the sex just isn’t quite as spicy as it was at first,” says Greg Charms. “And we got into swinging for that reason. And just seeing guys’ reactions to Ami at clubs, it was just a natural to get into websites. We knew other couples who had websites, and I honestly felt my wife was as sexy if not more sexy than those girls.”

But Ami was convinced the site would go over as well as Ron Jeremy playing King Lear. “I was totally surprised someone would actually be interested in looking at my pictures,” Ami says. “But by the end of the first day, I had three members.” Today, her membership hovers as high as 500.

Ami and Greg Charms are two of countless residents who’ve been able to make a living at bedroom-born porn, thanks to cheap bandwidth, low production costs and a seemingly ever-growing audience of horny web surfers. But how long will the homebrewed porn bash last?

Cue wakka-wakka music

While it’s trumpeted on the web like some new sex pill, amateur porn is more than 20 years old, pioneered by companies such as Homegrown Video, considered the granddad of amateur smut. Local adult filmmaker and adult industry consultant Lee–who declined to give his last name, as he has two children in a private school–has watched it all, ever since helping adult video company Hollywood Video launch its amateur line in 1985. He’s since backed out of the business, having seen the orgy get a little too intense for even his taste. Now he makes three or four amateur videos a month, including niche stuff like smoking videos. (Those are videos of women–clothed or naked–smoking cigarettes.)

“Today, anybody with an AOL account and five minutes can make themselves a porn star,” he says. “And a lot of those people have hindered the business because they don’t think there are any rules. It’s like the Wild West out there or something.”

He holds forth not on the set of a porn shoot, but rather at a blue-collar east Las Vegas bar where swingers hold a monthly meeting that, in the wee hours, can turn into a steamy scene in its own right. Sometimes, the goings-on at the bar can carry over into its own movie shoot later at someone’s house. The very appeal of that pickup-porn vibe has created a shift in the industry as a whole. With amateur websites competing for the dollar of the guy-with-boner market, industry giants such as Vivid and VCA (part of Vivid and all of VCA were recently bought out by Hustler Inc.) have gone leaner and meaner to compete, scaling back wages and production in hopes of still making a buck on the traditional VHS/DVD adult movie end of the biz. Case in point: After filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy this year and resigning as the company’s chairman, former Penthouse President Robert Guccione fingered cheap and free Internet porn as the culprit for a magazine circulation that has shriveled from 5 million to 530,000 over the past decade.

“The big companies are putting out [adult movie] titles that sell at 10 percent of what they used to,” Lee says. “And that’s what they’re paying us now, too. From ’95 to ’98, it rained money on everyone in the adult Internet business. They used to throw half-million-dollar parties. But now you’ve got everyone in adult Internet out there kicking everyone in the teeth they can just to survive.”

Longtime porn star Christi Lake has watched the growth of amateur porn with the same measured alarm. In her jeans, sweatshirt and ball cap, Lake looks like a college coed on her way to do laundry. But she’s not that–nor is she a mere amateur. In her nearly 10-year career, the adult film actress has been in more than 300 major porn flicks, getting her start in 1995 with Vivid’s Fashion Plate, and later appearing in titles such as World’s Luckiest Man, Sex Commandos and Sleeping Booty. Back then, she estimates, the industry was putting out about 4,000 titles a year; now it’s nearly three times that–and they’re scrambling for an increasingly distracted audience.

“There’s too much to choose from, and nobody’s making any money,” says Lake. “The industry is eating itself alive.” But Lake, who shot her latest film, Serenity in Toyland, in March, says there’s more symbiosis than slugging between the am and pro world.

“The porn star will never die,” she says. “Amateur porn only brings us more recognition as stars. People will always distinguish the difference.” The difference? “Some of us take acting classes. It may not always show, but the way I see it, I’m an actress whose job just happens to involve sex.”

Swing…but on film

One thing Lake does have in common with her amateur counterparts is that her entry into the world of porn came through the swinging lifestyle. Before getting out the cameras and rudimentary scripts, many Vegas amateurs were already quite used to romping with multiple partners. It was just a short spurt in logic to do it on camera. Take Kitty Foxx, a 13-year porn veteran who got her start when the web was in its infancy–and few had a grasp of the range of fetishes the technology would reflect. Foxx has been a swinger for 35 years; today, she specializes in “mature porn.”

“Hubby and I were swingers long before this came along,” says Foxx, 61. “A producer approached me at a [swingers] lifestyle convention and said, ‘You want to do a movie?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ What’s the difference?” In her tenure, she’s appeared in nearly 400 adult films and figures she’s bumped with about 10,000 guys. “I’m just old. I fucked a lot,” she says. (Sidebar: Foxx’s flirt with mainstream fame was in 1996’s Freeway, a campy thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland and Reese Witherspoon. Foxx plays Witherspoon’s grandma. She’s killed by Sutherland’s character, a serial killer).

Regardless of what happens to the industry as a whole, Foxx has faith that porn will remain as constant as Christmas–specifically, amateur porn. “So many people prefer amateur porn because it seems more natural,” she says. “It’s the girl-next-door phenomenon, where Joe Blow thinks, ‘Golly, maybe I’ll see my neighbor.'” Foxx herself has played the granny next door in such films as 50 and Still Gang Banging, Aged to Perfection, Grumpier Old Women and the Golden Oldies series.

Foxx plunged into the biz just as the salad days were starting to wane. “They used to rent dude ranches, fancy cars, lavish homes,” she says. “But as time went on, they started cutting down on production.” Today, she makes most of her money with her own website and video mail-order.

The days of wine and moaning may be over for big-budget productions–or, heck, even a good plot–but some anticipate things getting even worse. Local photographer and web mogul Brad Fitzgerald–who recently spent a day shooting in a rented Strip hotel room for the string of adult websites he operates–points to an Internet-wide patent lawsuit that threatens to make the adult industry go limp faster than a camera-shy newbie.

In a widely discussed case, Acacia Media Technologies, a company that claims to have a patent on streaming video, has been suing adult websites left and right for intellectual property infringement. Critics say it’s a bullying move to extort outrageous licensing fees from the lucrative adult web. Either way, Fitzgerald says it’ll have a chilling effect on homegrown porn, as most independent sites with streaming video don’t have the money to fight a lawsuit, nor the cash flow for licensing fees. Fitzgerald himself, whose main site is Missnudeinternet.net, avoids streaming video like a rash. Yet even he’s received a threatening letter from Acacia since he merely links to other sites that feature the technology. He thinks he’s ducked a lawsuit for the time being, and he’s hopeful that amateur porn–where the Plain Janes and Average Joes are coming to a webcam near you–will survive the storm.

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