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Netflix’s Pornhub Doc Is as Much About Capitalism as It Is About Sex

Money Shot takes a hard look at adult entertainment.
  • Gwen Adora, a performer featured in Money Shot (Photo: Netflix)
    Gwen Adora, a performer featured in Money Shot (Photo: Netflix)

    The title of Money Shot: The Pornhub Story is more clever than it might seem. At first, it appears to be a reference to a particularly graphic moment in a porn film, which implies this Netflix documentary will be a prurient peep show disguised as nonfiction programming. But really, the emphasis is on the word “money.” All naughty wordplay aside, the film is mostly interested in how the flow of capital has radically transformed the porn industry in the last three years, and by extension, how morality, cash, and politics have found new ways to become entwined.

    Though she covers the rise of internet porn and the launch of Pornhub in particular, director-producer Suzanne Hillinger uses December 4, 2020 as the linchpin for her film. That’s the day The New York Times published “The Children of Pornhub,” a Nicholas Kristof op-ed that decried the site’s apparent willingness to host videos featuring sexual assault, underage victims, and other illegal material. The result was swift: Pornhub not only deleted millions of clips, but also required all remaining content to go through a strict verification procedure. Meanwhile, several credit card companies announced they would refuse to process payments to porn sites, since they didn’t want to be perceived as supporting criminal behavior.

    Hillinger lets this turning point launch a layered debate. She speaks to almost a dozen people who work in or advocate for the porn industry, and she also interviews lawyers and activists who have worked to stop Pornhub from exploiting people. In the broadest sense, everyone agrees with each other: Nobody wants to platform nonconsensual porn, and nobody wants minors to be trafficked or abused. But as Hillinger pushes her subjects to explain what they do want, fascinating nuances emerge.

    Several of the anti-Pornhub advocates argue that the site monetizes depravity. They note, for instance, that the company has historically put very few resources into content moderation, and one former moderator (interviewed anonymously) confirms his job was so demanding it was basically impossible for him to weed out all the suspect footage he encountered. Another scene demonstrates how Pornhub would take down an illegal video, but still leave up the page where it had been hosted. That way, users looking for the missing content could receive recommendations for other, similar videos on the site, and Pornhub itself could collect data about their search interests.

    That’s all unsettling, and it doesn’t help that Pornhub’s owners and executives are such a shadowy group. Hillinger includes footage of them being deposed by Canadian officials, but otherwise they’re a mysterious, sinister presence in the film. (In her only tonal aberration, she references a conspiracy theory that somebody burned down a Pornhub executive’s house, which is a salacious distraction from the vital arguments she’s making.)

    But on the other hand, the porn professionals argue that legitimate performers suffered in the rush to block objectionable material. The credit card lockdown, for instance, made it harder for them to earn money, and so did social media “shadow bans” that made it nearly impossible for adult performers to connect with users who might pay for their work. Several interviewees note that the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), which has pushed hard against Pornhub, used to be called Morality in Media. They argue that NCOSE is just an old-fashioned, repressive religious group, disguised as a liberal advocacy organization.

    Those are also good points: Adults have the right to earn a living, and they have the right to express their sexuality, both as viewers and content creators. When policies are created in response to moral outrage, they rarely make that kind of distinction. Hillinger clearly sympathizes with the performers here, even documenting a porn shoot where the participants talk about the sexiness of consent. It’s heavy handed, but it’s hard not to understand her perspective. Porn may displease a lot of people, but it’s not merely a moral swampland.

    Still, despite her own biases, Hillinger never closes her film to dissent. She skillfully contrasts her subjects, so that Money Shot becomes makes impassioned arguments without suggestion simple resolutions. It’s a reminder that while porn itself often satisfies a straightforward desire, the culture and economy in which porn is made are full of ambiguity. 

    Money Short: The Pornhub Story premieres March 15 on Netflix.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: Pornhub, Netflix, Suzanne Hillinger