At first glance T's Lounge in West Palm Beach doesn't look like a dump. The waitresses are friendly, the bouncer smiles, and the bathroom is scrubbed and well lit; there's even a guy in there who squirts soap in your hands and produces a warm towel whether or not you put a dollar in his plastic bucket.
But flaws are easily hidden in the dark, says Michael, a self-proclaimed expert on Palm Beach County strip joints. "Come back and look at it in the daylight. It's a shit hole," he says, a grin spreading across his face. "Go over there. In the corner. There's a pole holding up the ceiling."
Then you start noticing things: the dim lighting, the worn carpet, the dirt parking lot, the dancers' demeanor. Nobody enters a strip club without expecting to be shaken down, but at T's the pitch is strident, almost desperate. Turn down one lap dance and you'll still be offered six more during the following 15 minutes. The dancers don't give up easily, and they barely disguise their contempt for men who refuse them.
It's here, where sex equals money and no one is pretending otherwise, that Jim Gunn is in his element. Gunn is holding court at a tiny circular table while a rotating cast of beautiful women stops by and introduces themselves.
Why all the interest from sex-hardened dancers?
It can't be his looks. Gunn, real name James Gauthier, has the doughy physique of a man in his thirties who doesn't exercise or see the light of day enough. His thinning black hair is combed straight back from a high hairline to cover a bald spot. He has a nervous laugh and a toothy grin that make him look like a cross between Rob Schneider and James Belushi.
It can't be that he seems rich. Though he claims a six-figure income, Gunn displays no appearance of wealth. He's wearing a black T-shirt, black jeans, and black sneakers. He springs for a few drinks but doesn't throw money around and doesn't tuck a single dollar into a G-string.
And it can't be his charm. He is competent at small talk and is a nice guy, but charisma is irrelevant in strip clubs. That's part of the draw.
It must be his profession: porn entrepreneur. Gunn is one of the few adult-film producers to make a name for himself outside the Southern California epicenter of X-rated movies. Even in South Florida, which is saturated with escort services, adult-video stores, and strip clubs, professional producers of hard-core porn are a novelty. For dancers who've heard every come-on imaginable, Gunn's sales pitch -- "I'll pay you to have sex in one of my nationally distributed movies" -- is usually a new one.
Should they sign on with Gunn, they could earn decent money. Depending upon the sex act and the number of people involved, he pays between $100 and $1000 per scene. Not bad for a couple hours' work.
The women's interest is collectively piqued. As soon as word gets around that Gunn is in the club, they stop by to check him out. Tommi, a striking brunette in a Britney Spears-style schoolgirl uniform, is incredulous. "Are you really a porno guy?"
"Uh-huh," Gunn says with a wide grin.
As proof he produces his Visor, a hand-held computer with a tiny color screen, and pokes at the buttons with the stylus, bringing up a still from a sex scene featuring three women and a large purple dildo. He turns the screen to Tommi and points at one of the women in the shot. "See her? That's Sandy, right over there," he says, gesturing toward a nearby table where a woman with bobbed, ash-blond hair is chatting with a customer.
Sandy spots Gunn and abandons her customer. In a heartbeat she's sitting on his lap. She brings a friend to the table, a 19-year-old college student who goes by the stage name Taijé, pronounced "like the end of Fantasia," she says.
"This is Jim Gunn, the guy I was telling you about," Sandy says to Taijé. "Isn't he funny? He's the most interesting guy I know."
Sandy Knight, also a stage name, had a supporting role in Strap On Sally Number 17, the newest installment in Gunn's lesbian-heavy oeuvre. He met Sandy through a friend of a friend, then came to T's to watch her dance.
In his ten-year career, Gunn has produced almost 100 adult films, from low-budget spanking flicks to full-length feature films complete with scripts and crews. He's known in the porn industry as the guy who eschewed Los Angeles for the lush scenery and fresh faces of South Florida. The area has untapped porn potential. "That's the reason I'm here, and I'm really working hard at it," he says. "That is what makes my movies different too. If there is a hot chick that gets off the bus in Van Nuys [California] from Kansas tomorrow, in one week she could literally make 40 movies and be on the covers of 20 video boxes. And in two months, when the movies start coming out, you are going to see her everywhere. Everybody is shooting the same talent. Out here I am shooting these strippers who I am coaxing into the business for what is, for lack of a better term, part-time work."
He wants Taijé in his next movie. She isn't repelled by the idea; in fact she's porn positive. "Some people have the antiquated belief women are being used in the porno industry," she opines, sounding like the earnest college student that she is. "But it's the men who are lining up. It's not us being victimized. Men have this weakness in their bodies, and we are taking advantage of it." Still, she worries hard-core sex immortalized on film could some day come back to haunt her.
"You should think about it," Gunn says. "The chances of someone seeing you are slim. You know there are thousands of movies that come out every year."
"I know," she says. "Maybe sometime over the summer if I need the cash."
Tommi, while interested, is also wary. She has the necessary experience -- "I had sex with the whole seventh-grade cheerleading squad," she offers -- but what if her parents find out?
Gunn offers his business card. She tucks it into her thigh-high white stockings.
"What's your phone number?" he asks.
"What, so you can call me up and leave a message on my home answering machine that my mom will hear, "Hi, this is Jim. Do you want to be in a lesbian fuck film?'"
"I would never leave a message like that," he replies sheepishly.
"We'll see," she says.
Sandy introduces Gunn to Debbie, a buxom blonde from the Pamela Anderson school. Debbie politely turns him down. Dancing is as far as she ventures into the sex business. Then Sandy hooks him up with Darrien, a demure brunette, but she won't cross that line either. "I have a 100 percent Italian father who would kick my ass," she says. "And I have a 100 percent Polish mother who would kick my ass."
No takers, it seems. But the trip isn't a loss. It takes time to convince women to have sex on camera. That's why he spends two or three nights a week at Broward and Palm Beach county strip clubs. "I try to bring them into the business... and I try to do it when they are young, before they change their minds or get too many tattoos."
As it turns out, Sandy, her husband Patrick (who showed up at Gunn's table later that evening), and Taijé would all soon appear in a Jim Gunn movie.
Porn in the U.S. is huge business, though no one seems to agree on exactly how huge. The numbers tossed about by mainstream media range from $10 billion to $20 billion annually. Even the lower figure is about equal to what Americans spend on sporting events and live music combined, according to Frederick S. Lane's book Obscene Profits, The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age, which was published last year.
Another way to look at it: About 12,000 new adult movies were released in the United States in 2000, says writer Gene Ross, who has covered porn for 15 years and cofounded the industry's biggest trade magazine, Adult Video News. That means a total of almost 33 flicks per day.
Since most of those movies come from Los Angeles, it's not surprising that the same faces show up repeatedly. "There are male performers who have been in 10,000 movies," says Ross, who recently parted from Adult Video News and now writes about the industry on his Website, www.generossextreme.com. "And there are a few guys who have made 12,000 to 13,000."
It's the same story for women, who for obvious physiological reasons can perform in more movies than men and tend to earn more money per scene. They're the real stars.
So how does an aspiring producer distance himself from this glut of smut? "Fresh faces," says Ross. "That's basically what Gunn's doing. He shoots in locales a lot of other guys haven't tapped."
That's what passes for a gimmick in this most uncreative offshoot of the Hollywood entertainment juggernaut. You can be a maverick simply by picking up your camera and moving to the subtropics.
The lack of cineporn in South Florida is odd, because related industries are booming. In 1997 the Sun-Sentinel put a price tag of $1.5 billion on sex-related commerce throughout the state. With a booming economy and the arrival of tens of thousands of transplants since the Sentinel's estimate, the number is clearly higher today.
Escort services are found on every corner in some neighborhoods. Video stores, X-rated theaters, and sex-toy shops are ubiquitous, too. And a handful of magazines have cropped up, such as Xcitement, which is based in Fort Lauderdale, and Score, Voluptuous, Baby Face, Leg Sex, and Naughty Neighbors, which are published by the Score Group in Miami. South Floridians are also making money on porn Websites. And directors from California occasionally shoot special projects here.
But Gunn is possibly the only professional, full-time, nationally distributed porn-film producer in South Florida, says Ross. The moviemaker apparently has the place to himself. Even the California-based porn trade press has largely ignored Gunn. "Like much of the business, they are very Californiacentric," he says. "I don't encourage them to investigate me. Then there's more for me. This is a copycat business."
Gunn claims an income "in the six figures, the low six figures," but there's no way to confirm that. His company, Jim Gunn Productions Inc., is a one-man show with an address at a Mail Boxes Etc. on Oakland Park Boulevard. He drives a 1996 Firebird with "GUNNXXX" license plate, and lives in a modest, rented home in a working-class Oakland Park neighborhood.
He is blissfully free of others' demands on his time. On a typical day, he wakes up at 10 a.m. or so, listens to Howard Stern, then works at home on his Websites: www.brazilxxx.com, www.jimgunn.com, and www.lezcheer.com, which is under construction. Though he came late to Internet porn, he hopes to make money the same way he profited in sex video: by specializing in all-girl material and introducing new faces to the business.
Europe is hot right now; a lot of producers are flocking to Czechoslovakia to film porn. Gunn, sticking to his formula of zigging when everyone else zags, is mining for fresh bodies in Brazil. He went there four times last year, and so far his travels have resulted in Luscious Latinas one and two, International Deep Throat Search Number One, and Sex Around the World 1 (Brazil). This summer he's planning a trip to Iceland. "I read some interesting thing about the genetically pure women there, and I've got to go there and shoot something."
For a guy in such an explicit business, Gunn is surprisingly reticent about his background. Ask him what he was like as a kid, and he says, "normal." Ask him about sports, and he offers that he played soccer and wrestled in high school. His luck with the opposite sex as a young man was so-so. "I was no stud. I had a couple girlfriends but not too many. I didn't really pursue it, you know. I really don't remember what I did when I was a kid in high school."
After trying to draw him out for a while, you get the sense that, for him, ruminating on the past is a waste of time. Producing cinematic sex is an act quintessentially of the moment. A good three-way scene or a particularly enthusiastic performance is nice, but it's also ephemeral. When you're competing with hundreds of people putting out thousands of movies, you don't rest on your laurels. You film more sex.
This much Gunn does say: he grew up in "about seven or eight" New York City suburbs. Which one does he consider his hometown? "I don't really know if I should say."
His parents have been married for 35 years. They know what he does for a living, and they don't mind, he says. "I think if you were to talk to them, they would say something like "as long as he's happy.'" He'd rather they not be interviewed, however.
He has one brother, two years his junior, who is a high-school biology teacher. "He is nothing like me. He is not interested in stuff I am interested in. He is a quiet guy and a respectable guy who has no interest in porn and money and, you know, strippers and stuff like that."
Gunn saw his first porn film at age 13 and has no trouble recalling the title: "It was an old Vanessa Del Rio movie, Dominatrix Without Mercy," he says.
He was a fan of the genre through high school and college at the State University of New York at Albany, where he majored in marketing and business administration. Concurrently he wrote and submitted articles to magazines such as Big Butt and Video Xcitement. "It paid almost nothing, but I got my foot in the door," he says.
He graduated summa cum laude in 1991 and was on his way to a nine-to-five gig when he had his epiphany: He didn't want to work in corporate America, he didn't want a real job, and he didn't want to become his dad.
The revelation came in a scene from a bad porno movie. "I went to Manhattan, did a few interviews, and it sucked. It sucked that I was on a train; it sucked that I was wearing a tie. I was thinking, I'm going to have to do this every day, this is boring. And I would get to the places and think, Look at these people in this dirty, dingy office. So I went down to a peep show. It just dawned on me as I had my arm through a hole in the wall fondling some girl's ass: I got to get into the sex business."
He sent his résumé to just about every East Coast porn producer or distributor -- there were maybe five or six at the time. Pleasure Productions, headquartered in Hightstown, New Jersey, hired him to do sales and publicity. Pleasure was small then, recalls Gunn, but it was growing. By the time he left seven years later, the company had 150 employees and put out 30 to 40 titles per month on video and DVD.
In 1993, while still at Pleasure, Gunn decided it was time to get into production. He spent $3000 on a video camera. Then he paid porn star Holly Ryder "about $200, if I remember correctly," found a few dancers and strippers willing to work for similar rates, and shot Red Tails, a spanking flick. "I presented it to my boss at Pleasure, who didn't know I had such an interest in filming," Gunn recalls. "He refused to buy it because it sucked, but he didn't fire me. Then he thought, OK, this kid is interested; I'll give him a chance."
Gunn cranked out a few more bondage movies before producing Strap On Sally. With $15,000 or so in backing from Pleasure, he lined up porn stars Chantilly Lace and Ariana along with a gaggle of others from the New York area. The movie came out in January 1994 and was a huge success by porn standards. "They had a lot of other directors making features in L.A. and elsewhere at the time," says Gunn. "But that was by far the best-selling movie that Pleasure had to date. I think we might have broken close to 4000 units in the first couple months. It launched the series that continues to this day. I shot Strap On Sally Number 17 a month and a half ago."
The movie also earned him the boss's trust. Soon Gunn was developing a number of other projects for Pleasure, in addition to performing his marketing duties. He worked 40-hour weeks, then filmed on weekends.
He was prolific. During the '90s he came out with titles including multiple volumes of Canadian Beaver Hunt, East Coast Sluts, Orgy Girls, Penis Envy, Canadian Stripper Search, and Lesbian Virgins. And there were dozens of other titles like Savage Torture, Slapped Around Sluts, Slave Girl's Agony, South Beach Beauties, Sinister Fantasies, and Sexy Car Wash Girls.
By porn standards Gunn's work is competent, if not groundbreaking. The camera is steady, the angles are varied, the lighting is adequate, and the sound is comprehensible. He often writes his own scripts, which serve the purpose -- moving actors from sex scene to sex scene.
Paige Shagwell, Private Lap Dancer, one of his recent feature films, is typical. "I think it's a pretty good little movie," says Gunn. He shot it in South Florida with about $15,000 from Pleasure in just under a week. He used a $55,000 Beta-SP video camera, which is similar to equipment used by TV news shows, and his crew included a makeup artist, production assistant, videographer, and gaffer.
Paige Shagwell, played by an actress of the same name, according to the box cover, is a private investigator specializing in sex crimes -- or more accurately, crimes that coincide with sex. The movie opens with Shagwell and her employee, Joe (played by Joe Shagwell, according to the box), enjoying a glass of wine at an oddly empty Italian restaurant. The Shagwells, it seems, have had a very busy year and are looking forward to taking a couple weeks off.
Then her cell phone rings. Another job. This time a client needs them to crack a prostitution ring at a strip club. The Shagwells take the case. Then they clear the silverware off the restaurant table and have sex.
Afterward they take off for the club in their red LeBaron convertible. Paige's job is to befriend Gina Lynn, the dancer suspected of masterminding the prostitution operation. Joe is there to run the sound system.
Paige is a quick study. After changing in the dressing room, she goes on-stage with Gina and has sex with her to establish her bona fides. It works. Gina is fooled into trusting Paige and reveals her operation which, no surprise, involves patrons, dancers, and a lot of sex. Each time a coupling occurs, Paige pops from behind a bush or peeks into a window and says "busted" or "got another one," though we never see her call the cops to make an arrest. (Those scenes may come in a future Gunn movie. He recently purchased a jail set, complete with iron bars, from a long-forgotten '80s cop show.)
Having cleaned up the club, we next find the Shagwells back in their office, again talking about that much-needed vacation. Then the phone rings. Another client, another job, more sex. They sigh, retire to the couch, and have sex. And that's a wrap.
Gunn really doesn't know how much the movie has earned -- he doesn't own the rights -- but surmises it's popular because he has seen it on cable TV.
One Friday afternoon in May, a blue SUV pulls into the Spindrift motel parking lot, a thin strip of spaces on the west side of A1A in Fort Lauderdale. A heavyset, middle-aged man with tousled blond hair and wearing a T-shirt exits the driver's side. A blond, hard-looking, thirtyish woman in jeans shorts and a pink sleeveless T-shirt gets out of the passenger side. The man, an undercover police officer, walks into the motel courtyard. The woman follows until an armed officer in black trousers and black T-shirt with the word "POLICE" emblazoned in block letters across the back materializes from a nearby hedge and beckons her over. She obeys.
From 30 feet away, the conversation between the woman and the cop is inaudible, but the body language is unmistakable. She cries, points, and throws up her hands in exasperation. He listens dispassionately, shakes his head, and leads her away by the wrist. It's a prostitution sting.
Inside room 118 Gunn is shooting two upcoming films: Extreme Coeds: Spring Break Goes Hardcore and an as-yet-unnamed project that will be a compilation of ten or twelve blowjob vignettes. He chose the motel for its authentically low-budget look. From the stained blue carpet to the kitchenette with a Goldstar microwave oven on top of the refrigerator to the cane loveseat with drab, threadbare, floral-print cushions, the place exudes "spring break on a budget."
Gunn has three studio lights arrayed in a triangle around the two double beds. Sandy, Taijé, and Patrick relax on the loveseat. Patrick, age 37, is a former antiques dealer. He's here to watch his wife work and to be an extra if needed. "I do walk-ons, chit-chat with the girls, that sort of stuff. No sex scenes," he says. Gunn has talked Taijé into appearing in a film, but she is still too camera-shy to perform any hard-core activity. Gunn filmed her on the beach, with her swimsuit on, earlier in the day.
Patrick is delighted by his wife's porn career. "I think it's a blast," he says. "I think it's great. She's having fun, everyone is cool, and she likes the sex. I'll get a good collection of videos out of it, and that works for my fetishes."
His wife is wearing tight white shorts, a purple bikini top, and high heels. She's been in the business four months. This will be her seventh film, her third for Gunn. She also appeared in Lesbian Cheerleading Squad Number 3, and Strap On Sally 17. "I wasn't Strap On Sally, but I got to boink her, so that's cool," she says.
A little after 2 p.m., the first scene is in the can. It stars Sandy and Gunn, who shot the scene himself; he pointed the camera toward his own lap so that only Sandy's head shows. He says he rarely appears in his own movies.
As Patrick and Sandy leave to get a sandwich, the next couple arrives. Peter ("no last name") is a muscular, 37-year-old personal trainer from West Palm Beach. He has a goatee, long black hair tied in a pony tail, and a tattoo of braided rope around each bicep. Peter picks up work in adult films and magazines whenever he can. "I like the freedom," he says. "We do things normal people don't get to do." But, he adds, "People don't realize that it ain't that simple. It's actual work; it's not sex."
Today his job involves sex with his fiancée, a slender, leggy, 23-year-old blonde by the stage name of Robyn Foster. Though she's appearing in full closeup in Gunn's movie and has worked in 25 to 30 other adult films, Robyn is publicity shy. She's from Palm Beach County and worries her parents might recognize her should her picture appear in New Times. Then there's the fact that she's a student teacher at an area elementary school, and her acting career probably wouldn't sit well with school officials. Why risk it at all? "You usually get paid on the spot," she says. "Instant gratification is nice."
Robyn sits cross-legged on the bed while Gunn prepares for the scene. After a few minutes of fiddling with the lights and readying his cameras, he's ready to shoot stills for the box cover. He orders her to stand at the end of the bed. "Open your top a little," he instructs.
"I don't do that," she says with a smile full of sin as she tugs on the oversize chrome zipper.
He snaps away. "Now undo your top completely. That's sexy."
There's a problem. Robyn's implant ruptured a few weeks ago and she's developed a dime-size sore on the side of her right breast that oozes blood and saline solution. She's not in pain but does have to excuse herself periodically to go to the bathroom and wipe up the leakage.
After a few minutes, the stills are in the can and Robyn is ready to work. "What are we doing?" she asks Gunn.
"You both walk in from outside, and he asks you to suck his dick," says Gunn, trading his still camera for his digital video one.
"Oh gee, how original," Robyn says playfully.
Peter and Robyn walk out, close the door behind them, open the door 30 seconds later, and walk back in. They follow Gunn's direction as he crawls around them like an intent used-car buyer, poking his video camera in every nook and cranny. He shoots high angles, low angles, over Peter's shoulder, between Robyn's legs, always making sure that the camera catches her left side or that her hair covers her breast and hides the sore.
Small problems crop up during the shoot. After ten minutes of filming have elapsed, Peter complains of a headache and asks if anyone in the room has an aspirin. (No one does.) Then, while standing, he says the ceiling fan is making his butt cold. (Gunn turns it off.) In the midst of filming an extreme closeup, Gunn sneezes violently. Robyn is startled -- she jerks her head from her fiancé's lap and screams. ("That's a mood breaker," Peter comments.)
Meanwhile the air conditioner hums and traffic whizzes by on A1A. Just outside the closed back door, which leads from the kitchenette onto a dingy patio, a man and woman argue about liquor and money. "I'm not even that drunk yet," the woman says, "not nearly."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
After 45 minutes Gunn gets his money shot. He instructs the couple to hold their pose until he can switch cameras again. "OK," he says finally, "that's it." And it's a wrap.
Robyn jumps up and walks into the bathroom to clean up. Peter assesses his performance while pulling on his black Calvin Klein underwear. "It was pretty good," he says. "It can be awkward at times. Sometimes you can't get it up. It happens to everybody in this business. It's happened to me. I'm not afraid to admit that."
Gunn got 24 of the 45 minutes on tape. That will edit down to about 14 minutes in the final version, which should be on the shelves in about two months. He hands the actors a release, which they must sign to certify they are more than 18 years old and were filmed voluntarily. After they complete and date it, he cuts them one check for $200. Oral sex pays about half as much as penetration, he explains. It's not as involved.
Gunn packs his equipment, loads it into Peter's battered Camaro, and turns in the room key. The three of them pull out of the parking lot and head south on A1A looking for a restaurant to get something to eat.