Money Shot: The Pornhub Story

Year: 2023
Production Co: Jigsaw Productions
Director: Suzanne Hillinger
Producer: Suzanne Hillinger

You'd think a documentary about PornHub was destined to be one of two things; a fawning PR tract about how great it's been for the adult entertainment business or a scathing attack because – as the best known of the tube sites in porn – it's done the most to cut the livelihood people in the industry can make off at the knees.

But director Suzanne Hillinger takes neither route, and it's obvious she both had little or no backing or involvement from the Montreal-based company itself and wanted to be impartial, showing you both the good and bad. The editorial investment has actually come from Jigsaw Productions, Alex Gibney's company, so quality and impartiality was a bit of a given.

Sex workers, former employees, reporters, lawyers and people who run foundations concerned with the adult industry all get airtime, all of them wound smartly into a narrative about how the company was formed, developed and taken over as well as the way various people in and outside the industry have had to engage with it.

Initially the bad guy because it featured only pirated content which undercut the earning of performers and producers – and spelt the end of many of the studios that had owned the industry during the 90s and early 2000s – Mindgeek (which owns it) made PornHub a pornstar's best friend when it started offering creators the chance to make and monetise their content, like OnlyFans would later.

But as the film explains, there's been a dark shroud over it ever since, with supposedly huge amounts of non consensual revenge and sexual assault porn on the platform its owners don't really care about. There are a lot of facts and accusations about how lax its takedown policy is and how the site – simply through clever UX design – manages to trade on content like it even when it has taken it down.

And it gets even deeper into the mire of influence and politics. When the smart, well presented, articulate counsel of a body called the National Center on Sexual Exploitation – which looks every bit a legitimate NGO with a noble mission – turns out to be funded by the religious right, it leaves her stumbling as she tries to explain how their mission doesn't change because of who pays the bills.

It recounts the boycott movements that became so big payment providers couldn't ignore them, deciding to refuse payments from the platform and leaving performers in the curious and unenviable position where the website that previously threatened to erase their living does so again in an entirely new way.

A reporter from the New York Times features after one of the incisive takedowns of Pornhub's dark sides (revenge and trafficking porn), and it leads partly to an expensive New York lawyer launching a scathing and slightly hysterical class action lawsuit against the company that compares it to mobsters from The Sopranos.

It covers stuff you expect and know from the saga, like the further scare porn performers had in 2021 when OnlyFans said it would ban adult content, leaving them with potentially no means of charging for their videos (it backtracked), but it also gets even darker and weirder.

The original owner was indicted for tax evasion and ousted, and after the three owners of the company appear in front of a Canadian government enquiry/grilling and the palatial home the CEO is building in an exclusive Montreal neighbourhood is mentioned, the half-built house was burnt to the ground in an apparent arson attack in 2021.

There's a lot in the film about protecting the rights and safety of performers that nobody in such a polarised political climate like the US can agree on, but maybe the most revealing part is the government bill that looks on the surface like a great idea to allow free speech while restricting harmful internet content but which, on deeper reflection, would only harm performers more.

As a symbolic motif it captures the spirit of the movie perfectly – we all have opinions about the porn industry and our prejudices make those opinions seem crystal clear, but it's a more complicated field with so many conflicting needs, perspectives and people in it than those prejudices usually allow for unless we care enough to listen.

It's as fair, broad and balanced as you could wish for in a documentary, especially when it's about a subject that raises so much emotion and fearmongering.

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