By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 22, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Girlfriend Experience is one of Steven Soderbergh’s bite-size, semi-improvised, shot-on-DV doodles (like Bubble or Full Frontal), and it’s the best one he’s made. As it opens, we see jagged medium-range shots of a man and a woman murmuring to each other in a taxi, a fancy low-lit bar, and a bedroom. By the time they wake up, we’ve more or less decided that they’re a couple. Only they’re not. The guy is some sort of wealthy finance dude, and the girl is a high-end escort who provides not just sex but conversation, canoodling over late-night wine, and morning-after chitchat — the illusion of intimacy.

Shot during the early days of the economic crisis, The Girlfriend Experience is a mysterious and arresting look at how the culture of money turns love and desire into something you want to control. The escort, Chelsea, is played by Sasha Grey, a real-life adult-video star who is not so much a natural actress as a natural-born placid, affectless Barbie doll (imagine Eliot Spitzer consort ?Ashley Dupré with a touch of Demi Moore). The movie has the fascination of a documentary about a fictional character. Chelsea, with her ambitious teasing blankness, occupies the center of a crumbling mosaic of ?money, status, deception, and manipulated lust. We see her out with her clients; bickering with her live-in lover (Chris Santos), a gym trainer who pretends her job doesn’t bother him; and in meetings, some sinister, that promise to advance her career. Chelsea’s clients all seek ”the girlfriend experience,” but they aren’t alone; she, too, tries to barter herself into romance. Soderbergh ?has captured an America in which the line between ? selling out and selling yourself has never been thinner. ?(Available on cable via on demand) A