By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 06, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Thanks to a number of intersecting forces (the Internet, the rise of upscale topless clubs, Howard Stern’s nightly flesh parade on E!), the image of stripping as a degraded, exploitative profession now competes in the culture with a kind of postfeminist countermyth: the acrobatic yuppie sleaze goddess as self-empowering cash machine. The fascination of Stripped, a documentary about the world’s second-oldest profession, is that it refuses to kowtow to either (oversimplified) version of reality. Instead, it reveals how stripping, in a world where sexual imagery has become a corporate megabusiness, could be at once exploitative and empowering.

The director, Jill Morley, is herself a former pole dancer, and that may account for the film’s investigative toughness as well as its compelling refusal to judge. Morley tracks the lives of five strippers, including herself, most of whom have toiled along the same New Jersey grind-bar circuit that houses Tony Soprano’s beloved Bada Bing! lounge. Nearly all of the women felt crummy about their looks growing up, and they describe getting up on stage as an emotional narcotic that, in a strange way, mirrors the dehumanized erotic high that draws men into strip clubs in the first place. There’s a steep price for the fix, though: By the end of the movie, one of the subjects has disappeared, and the rest describe how the shiny hard core of capitalism — the very aspect of stripping they initially found liberating — has begun to calcify their souls.