Miami Film Festival documentary ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ examines local porn industry

Talent scout Riley and his stable of models kick back in his North Miami Beach home.
Talent scout Riley and his stable of models kick back in his North Miami Beach home. RONNA GRADUS

Her name is Tressa. She’s 19, and she lives in the small town of New Braunfels, Texas, (population: 63,219) with her loving, working-class parents. She graduated from high school six months ago, but she’s not sure she wants to go to college, because she thinks it will bring her nothing but big loans that will dog her for years.

Tressa has everything except a sense of purpose, a mission. All she knows is that she doesn’t want to repeat her parents’ simple, predictable existence — a home, a job, marriage, children. She’s in that dangerous gap between adolescence and adulthood in which people often make decisions they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. Then one day, while perusing the website Craigslist, she comes across an ad headlined “Looking for hot Austin models,” promising fun, adventure, a good salary and a home in Miami. All she has to do is have sex in front of a camera for online amateur porn websites. The way Tressa sees it, she’s already having sex, so why not get paid for it?

You may think you know what happens next: The young, somewhat naive woman gets mired in a swamp of drugs, abuse and exploitation and, if she survives, she will be permanently, emotionally damaged. But one of the big surprises of Hot Girls Wanted, the new documentary by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus (Sexy Baby) that screens at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival on March 9 and 11, is that none of those things occur.

Instead, Tressa is picked up by her new talent agent, Riley, a 23-year-old from Tampa who runs a lucrative business finding women between the ages of 18-21 to work in porn, and helps her come up with her stage name: Stella May. Riley is no scheming Svengali: He’s simply a shrewd businessman with a clear head and a good eye for talent who puts up his models in a large North Miami Beach home and treats them like sisters. When Tressa meets her new roommates — all of them, like her, young and inexperienced — the mood is something like an all-girls episode of The Real World. They immediately bond, go shopping together, play with Riley’s dogs, lounge around and, when a gig comes up, go to work the way most people go the office. Just by looking at them, you would never guess these funny, likable women earn a living having sex for websites with alarming names such as “Teens Do Porn,” “Pervs on Patrol,” “Exploited Teens” and “Fetish Girls.”

“The fact that these girls are very much the girl-next-door and not the cliché of a porn star is what makes the movie something larger than just a movie about the adult film business,” says Gradus. “This is really a story about this new generation’s carefree attitude about sex. Why is it that an 18-year-old doesn’t think twice about doing this? They’ve never done porn before, but when they show up, they know exactly what they need to do, because they’ve grown up with Internet porn. They are much more desensitized than the generation before them.

“People are going to write about the film as being anti-porn, and that’s frustrating to us,” Gradus says. “We knew that would be the biggest challenge in making this movie, because it’s a new concept to acknowledge that smart, sweet girls are knowingly getting themselves into this. They’re not being forced into it. It’s their choice. So it forces us as a culture to consider this: What is it about the society they’re growing up in that makes them think this is a good idea? It’s unsettling, because it’s just counterintuitive.”

Gradus and Bauer are former journalists (both worked stints at the Miami Herald before moving to New York) who bring a reporter’s approach to their films. Their first film, 2012’s Sexy Baby, exposed how a pop culture overly obsessed with sexuality affected three women — a 12-year-old girl, a 22-year-old kindergarten teacher and a 32-year-old stripper. After a public panel discussion on the subject in which the girl featured in the documentary, now 16, spoke alongside actress Rashida Jones (The Office, Parks and Recreation), the filmmakers met the actress and told her about their desire to explore the subject further.

“I had written an article for Glamour magazine about the pornification of pop culture and how women were portrayed,” says Jones, who produced Hot Girls Wanted. “The image being presented in the media was more of a sexualized performance rather than these women’s real identities. I’m not anti-porn. As human beings, we are naturally fascinated by sexuality, and that’s never going to change. For me, the interesting thing is how much money there is to be made. It’s like the Wild West: There are no regulations. I was so impressed with Jill and Ronna, their storytelling ability and their passion. Philosophically and politically, we aligned very quickly. It’s such a difficult subject matter, and they took a nuanced approach to presenting it. One of the great side effects of being in the public eye is that people pay more attention to things you are involved with, so I was happy to join the team and help serve in any way I could.”

After researching the subject matter with the Kinsey Institute, Gradus and Bauer set out on the difficult task of cracking the amateur porn industry and gaining access to its actors and filmmakers. First they interviewed a frat boy from Syracuse, hoping to get the male angle on the topic, and discovered that despite all the sex he was having, he remained unsatisfied. He craved romance and courtship and all the experiences his parents had — things that increasingly have no place in today’s social-media driven culture, in which approval and likes by complete strangers on Facebook and Twitter have started to replace real-life connections.

Then Gradus ran into an old friend who told her he had dated a girl in the industry and could introduce her to people he knew who worked in Miami. Over dinner, the filmmakers met Riley and gained his trust. He invited them back to his home, where they met his current stable of models.

“We got to the house, and there were all these girls there, all of whom are in the film,” Bauer says. “We started talking to them and kept fishing, and our attention kept coming back to Tressa. They all had the same basic stories — they left home without telling their families, most of them came from healthy, functional families — and they were hard working and sweet and sensitive. None of them fit the traditional stories you hear about porn actresses who were abused or raped or came from a broken home or had daddy issues. But there was something in Tressa’s eyes that implied she was walking the walk but had a bit of sadness to her. She was a little forlorn. She’s not a big talker, but her face was very expressive.”

Tressa gradually became the focus of the documentary, and the filmmakers were able to capture some astonishing moments, such as a scene in which Tressa flies back home and tells her unbelieving mother what she’s been doing. Later in the film comes an exchange between Tressa and her supportive but increasingly disapproving boyfriend Kendall, whom she met during one of her visits to Texas and began dating long-distance from Miami. “What’s the difference between this and prostitution?” he asks her. It’s a question Tressa can’t answer.

Shot over the span of seven months, Hot Girls Wanted also reveals the mechanics of porn websites, which draw more visitors each month than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined (in 2014, the top four amateur sites combined averaged 41 million hits per month). John Anthony, an adult film star who lives in Miami, talks about the girls’ shelf lives as actresses (usually a few months, one year tops). New girls shoot three to five scenes per week and earn an average of $800 per scene. And with a culture that celebrates the objectification of women through music videos, magazines and commercials, the industry is poised for even further growth.

The film also implies that some of the girls are so wrapped up in the moment, flush with cash they’ve never had and intoxicated by the attention they’re receiving, that they are oblivious to what they’re doing. In one scene, a 19-year-old named Michelle (stage name Brooklyn Daniels) is posing for a photo shoot in revealing underwear and trying her best to look sexy, mimicking the female models she’s seen. But the harder she tries, the more exasperated the photographer becomes, because it’s clear Michelle doesn’t know what she’s doing.

“It’s really amazing,” Bauer says. “They’re not bringing in money to support their drug habit or anything like that. They are really living it up. The reason they don’t come out of the industry with a lot of cash is because they have to pay for their own travel, hotels, hairstyling and beauty products. They’re not the greatest money managers. They’re children. When they went to the mall, they’d go to Marshall’s. We could have followed any of them and gotten a really rich story, but it was important for us to break the conventional perception of a porn star. These girls have all the same baggage as pretty much any other, ordinary girl.”

Hot Girls Wanted made its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was picked up for distribution by Netflix, which is aggressively pursuing original content in an effort to become an alternate TV network. The movie will air there later this year, accompanied by a limited theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles.

Thom Powers, who programs documentaries for the Miami and Toronto International Film Festivals, says he was impressed by the way in which the movie took a fresh and original approach to a familiar subject matter.

“I loved how Jill and Ronna were able to enter a sensitive, private world I hadn’t seen onscreen before,” Powers says. “There are other documentaries that explore pornography, but those films tend to be about the professional industry. Hot Girls Wanted captures something different. It’s a transitional moment in the industry, in the culture and in the way we think about porn. We used to think about it as this underground industry that was all about taboo breaking. But the women in this film come from the mainstream of American society. The film gives them a great sense of humanity and reveals porn is a much more gray area than we thought. There is also a strong Miami element to this story. It may not be an aspect of Miami to be proud of, but it’s great to see filmmakers take a nuanced look at a side of our city that is omnipresent yet hidden from most of us.”

Without spoiling the ending of the film, Gradus says she hopes Hot Girls Wanted will make at least some young women think twice in today’s online-driven culture, where anonymity and 24-hour access often drive people to make rash decisions.

“It’s really a matter of sexual empowerment, because these girls feel validated when they start racking up followers on Twitter and Facebook,” she says. “But what does it even mean to have all these followers? It doesn’t mean anything. Some of these girls get amateur porn, and they’re totally comfortable with their decision and continue to do it. Other girls get into it, impulsively into it, and get swept up by the social media element. Before they can ask themselves what they’re doing, they’re already getting all this positive reinforcement. If I have 5,000 followers, and I’m on a legitimate website, then I have a legitimate career. For young women in small towns who see no future for themselves, that’s a temptation that is often hard to resist.”

If you go

“Hot Girls Wanted” will screen at the 32nd Miami International Film Festival as part of the Knight Foundation Documentary Award competition at the Regal South Beach 18 on Monday March 9 at 7 p.m. and Wednesday March 11 at 9:30 p.m. Directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus will attend. For tickets and info. visit www.miamifilmfestival.com or call 305-237-3456.