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Author of American Gangbang: A Love Story, Former Porn Director Sam Benjamin Interviewed

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Seymore Butts plays him in the movie version

from www.the phoenix.com – Soon after Brown University graduate Sam Benjamin moved to southern California in 1999, he started a website called jewishcheerleaders.com — an online journal about his nascent career in the porn industry.

“I always had that sensibility that I wanted to do some sort of work about porn rather than just creating the tape,” the 35-year-old recalls today.

But it wasn’t until several years later that he started working on American Gangbang: A Love Story, the narrative non-fiction book published earlier this year by Gallery Books, which explores his three-year stint as a full-fledged porn producer (on both sides of the camera lens).

Now, springboarding off the success of and interest in that tome, Benjamin is touring the country with his multimedia lecture, “A Brief History of Porn,” which traces the evolution of porn over the last several decades.

We caught up with him on the phone from Los Angeles to talk about basketball-sized boob jobs, the industry’s “star system,” and how to excise the poison from porn.

Q: YOUR DESCRIPTIVE CATCH-PHRASE IS “IVY LEAGUER TURNED PORNOGRAPHER TURNED AUTHOR.” CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW YOU WENT FROM BROWN UNIVERSITY TO PORN VALLEY?

As a student at Brown, I caught the art bug real bad; I just wanted to be an artist in any way possible. I had this epiphany that I could get into shooting adult films. I’d seen a bunch of them, and they didn’t seem that impressive.

I thought, I can edit okay . . . I thought, I could do this, but better. This was in 2000, when I started. Ebay was just coming into its own as this international commercial phenomenon, and that’s how I made my money in the first nine months [in California] — by making my own independent films, which were really low-budget, and selling VHS tapes through the mail.

I didn’t really make enough money to support myself 100 percent — I was still working at a juice bar part-time — so I decided to move down to Los Angeles and get with where the major league was. My original intent had been to change porn, to bring to it some kind of documentary perspective, or a little bit more thoughtful-slash-respectful perspective . . . but when I went down to LA, my main intention was staying alive and making enough money. So I got into the mainstream industry. Shot what they needed. It was interesting. It allowed me to go a little darker than I’m used to doing. In retrospect I’m glad I did it.

Q: AND THE BOOK RUNS THE GAMUT FROM HUMOROUS TO HIDEOUS, IS THAT CORRECT?

I wanted it to be, above all, honest. My experience was full of funny things. I laughed constantly when I was in porn. Some of that stuff is so absurd, from a visual perspective and from a human perspective. And yeah, it’s dark, but that’s the truth of it. The mainstream, LA, heterosexual porn industry — at least while I was in it — that shit was dark. I avoided writing about that stuff for a long time — that’s why it took me so damn long to write the book.

Q: WHAT IS THE GIST OF YOUR PUBLIC PRESENTATION? WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO COME AWAY KNOWING THAT THEY DIDN’T KNOW BEFORE?

I use non-explicit clips to try to show how the genre of adult film has changed and transmuted and gotten weirder and more fun over time. I talk a lot about changing technology influenced trends in porn, and I try to throw in some fun stuff about collective consciousness, collective castration anxiety . . . Basically, I want to lend specificity to the debate because often times people talk about porno, it’s always this kind of bow-chicka-wow-wow and then the conversation’s over.

Q: YOU’LL TALK ABOUT THE “ACCIDENTAL BEAUTY” THAT ONE CAN FIND IN 20TH CENTURY ADULT FILM. COULD YOU GIVE US AN EXAMPLE?

Let’s start out with the soundtracks. They’re so difficult for me to describe — you have to hear them to believe them. There’s just this uncharted territory of absolute mystery, because the musicians are never credited — it’s not going to help anyone’s career to say that he scored some ’80s porno. I’ve been digging in deep into all this crap, [such as] Backdoor Bandits. If you watch the video, you’re just like this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but if you just listen to it, you get swept up in this kind of abject majesty.

There’s also the star system. With the advent of Viagra, more men can do the job. But back in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a very closed system of players. Even though their acting talents are marginal to the extreme, you get to see them over and over. Once you get familiar with the actors, and the very small stable of directors who were making adult films, motifs get created. There’s this whole alternate system that can serve as an impoverished cousin to Hollywood.

Q: DO YOUR AUDIENCES APPRECIATE THE PRESENTATION?

Everybody loves ’90s porn. Everybody loves Edward Penishands. It’s a killer. You’ve got to go to a lecture for Edward Penishands if nothing else. There’s a great kind of chaos in this forgotten era of porn. And come for the music, too!

Q: WHAT ABOUT THE 1990S LED TO SUCH OUTRAGEOUSNESS? WAS IT A) BECAUSE THERE WAS SO MUCH MONEY FLOWING IN THE INDUSTRY AND B) INTERNET PORN WASN’T BIG YET?

That’s an interesting take on it, and I hadn’t thought about that myself. Part of it is just production value. The cameras look like crap during that era. It looks like cable access. And then, Viagra had just become available. It just opened up the door to people who could make one or two films and then totally disappear. The guys have thong tans. The boob jobs . . . they just started to get insane. Basketball-sized. There’s chaos and a feeling that anything goes. A lot of fake dicks — like, fake-rubber, 24-inch dicks — were used as part of the sex act. You can’t tell if the films were supposed to be comedy or a turn-on.

Q: DO YOU THINK THERE’S PORN THAT PLAIN OLD SHOULDN’T BE WATCHED?

No. I think those porns often are valuable in their own way . . . My idea is to dilute the pool. You know, you have some poison in there. Well, let’s add some voices. All these kids coming out of film school — let’s put them all into making porn. [laughing] You know? Put cleanness in it rather than trying to excise the cancer, because that shit doesn’t work.

Q: SOME SAY THAT PORN IS MISOGYNISTIC, OTHER SAY IT IS SIMPLY AN EXPRESSION OF DESIRE. DO YOU HAVE AN OPINION ON THIS DEBATE?

The problem is that porn has mostly been done by men. If we had more women as producers and directors . . . I believe that women tend to be the best pornographers, like Belladonna, Mason, Annie Sprinkle, Ashley Blue . . . All these women are totally awesome, empowered, perverse, interesting. I like to believe that there’s quite a bit of room for growth.

Q: WHAT DO YOU THINK YOUR CONNECTION WILL BE TO THE PORN INDUSTRY MOVING FORWARD?

I’d like to be able to give something back. The best example of someone who left the porn industry as a performer and a director and gave something back is Sharon Mitchell, who started AIM — the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation [which closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy earlier this year] . . . where performers could get AIDS tests once a month. She did an amazing job of giving something back to the industry that supported her for 25 years. I’d like to figure out a way to lend my voice in a positive way.

Q: ANY IDEAS ABOUT HOW YOU’D DO THAT?

I’d actually do something service-oriented. Hopefully just lending my voice to the debate in terms of putting my book out there is saying that normal people work in the sex industry — here’s what you may not know, here’s a little bit more of the story, here’s my story.

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