Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On
Credit: Netflix

Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On

"Every day a new girl turns 18, and every day a new girl turns to porn. I will never run out."

That's how porn agent Riley Reynolds describes his trade in 2015's Hot Girls Wanted, a documentary that took a close look at the amateur porn industry. Perhaps too close: When the provocative film premiered at Sundance two years ago, members of the adult video industry criticized its focus for being too narrow and negative in tone.

With Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, a six-part anthology series, the filmmakers — namely producers Rashida Jones, Jill Bauer, and Ronna Gradus — have clearly heard that criticism. While the film may have treated its few teen subjects as representative of an entire culture, the docuseries instead uses each installment to paint a portrait of those who have close relationships to digital love. The expanded format allows the team to make fewer statements, good or bad, about the intersection of romance and tech, and to simply sit back and tell six stories.

These six stories* are more thought-provoking than titillating — and that's a good thing. Each follows one or two individuals who operate in a specific area of modern digital romance (i.e. amateur porn, dating apps, video-chatting, etc.) as they demonstrate what it is they do and tell a story that leaves the judgment to the viewer. It's like the New York Times' "Modern Love" columns, but captured, deftly and often beautifully, on camera.

Of the six installments, the first (directed by Rashida Jones), third, and fifth stand out. That all three center on women in the erotic filmmaking industry shouldn't come as a surprise: Porn rarely caters to the female gaze, and the subjects featured in these episodes sound like they've wanted to share their stories to the camera for a long, long time. In "Women on Top," the first hour, a mother-daughter pair of erotic photographers — Suze and Holly Randall (above) — swap stories about giving their works a feminine touch. Meanwhile, Erika Lust, a successful erotic filmmaker in Barcelona with TED talks under her belt, points out the lack of female voices or attention to detail in an art form that depends on their bodies. ("I'm not interested in doing porn," Lust says. "I want to show sex, which is much more emotional.") In "Owning It," a "camming girl" — she videochats for tips in the form of tokens  — who recruits women to work in L.A., speaks candidly about how she tries to think beyond business and support her girls. Because who else will? Given all that seediness in the industry, there's enough judgment without the women turning their backs on themselves.

Yet, it's the fifth entry, "Take Me Private," that's the best. It's the most intimate, following a close relationship between a camming girl and her favorite client, an Australian man, who decide to meet in person for the first time. She feels sexy in her profession and in the persona she's built when the webcam's on; he has never had a relationship as deep as the one he feels with her, a woman on the other side of the world. And naturally, this unconventional love (or is it lust?) story brings with it strange, unsettling twists — including the fact that she's married. Turned On builds to a bittersweet conclusion told powerfully through the questions it poses: Is real love possible in an industry that feeds off carnal lust? Have these two vulnerable people been fooling themselves the entire time?

When Turned On strays into well-trod territory, though, it falters because it's unable to say or ask anything new. The fourth episode, for example, is largely a sequel to the original doc that tries to cover too much, leaving little room for deeper storytelling. Though the hour chronicles porn agent Reynolds' life (and his new "American dream," as he calls it), considerable time is spent exploring broader issues and statistics about the industry, including its somewhat outdated views on race, troublesome aggression toward female talent, and the proliferation of medication to keep male talent, well, going. Those issues may be important, but they feel shoehorned and squeezed into the hour. The second episode, about Tinder's paradox of choice, falls into the opposite trap. It still doles out stats here and there, but the spotlight belongs to James Rhine, a former Big Brother contestant who fell into a pattern of dating and unceremoniously dumping women. Despite delving into both a blossoming relationship and a failing one, too much of it feels staged. Maybe that's an appropriate takeaway for an episode about a reality TV star, and maybe it's unfair to criticize one of the six true stories as being less compelling, but the authenticity of this one doesn't resonate the way the other episodes do.

But even with weaker entries, Turned On delivers a fascinating collection of raw, human stories. They won't shed light on every element in the id-fueled industry, but they do illustrate the complexity of working inside it. Most of all, they show that sometimes, stories about lust can be better than the ones about love. A-

Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On hits Netflix Friday, April 21.

*The episode order changed after the series was screened for critics. This review reflects the updated order, which is as follows: "Women on Top," "Love Me Tinder," "Owning It," "Money Shot," "Take Me Private," and "Don't Stop Filming." The original documentary Hot Girls Wanted is also available on Netflix.

Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On
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