America is so divided that even a series of Netflix documentaries can feel like a political reckoning. Take two of its most recent offerings, Tiger King, an eight part show tracking Joe Exotic, a renegade zookeeper, and Circus of Books, a feature film that examines the relationship between the life and work of Karen and Barry Mason, two of America’s most unlikely gay porn distributors and producers. Like President Donald Trump, Joe Exotic’s narcissism fuels enough scandal to fill nearly endless storylines. 64 million people around the globe tuned into this trainwreck and for what? Exotic’s friends and co-workers often resemble the drug-addled outcasts and hangers-on at Andy Warhol’s factory, gaining small amounts of social capital for their proximity to tigers and whatever small insights they can glean from the actions of their boss. It’s not possible to learn from narcissists incapable of introspection.
If Tiger King attracts attention for its Trump-like qualities, Circus of Books is the resistance. Released this Wednesday, the film tells the intertwined history of the onetime gay juggernaut and the family behind the scenes, struggling to come to terms with its deep involvement in business that carries a large social stigma. Director Rachel Mason had a front-row seat to the action, she’s Karen and Barry’s daughter.
Like Exotic’s zoo, the Masons’ porn shop, Circus of Books, attracted its fair share of outsiders, partially due to the strict enforcement of laws that prohibited the sale and distribution of obscene material in 1976, when the Masons took over the store. The same moral depravity that defines the captive-tiger breeding industry permeates porn, but the Masons set themselves apart by running an honest (yet legally murky) business. “It was a very lucrative market, but you took major chances with imprisonment,” gay porn star Jeff Stryker tells Rachel. When the threat of arrest occurs in Circus of Books, it’s not a result of self-serving scheming, but through run of the mill business transactions.
“A good story is someone else’s tragedy,” Karen tells her daughter early on, explaining why she left the field of journalism. No shortage of exploitation exists in the porn industry—a topic all but untouched by the filmmaker—but people are inconsistent and Karen illustrates that truth more than others throughout the movie.
As purveyors of porn, Circle of Books saw more success than most. The film runs through the history of the store, from its radical beginnings in the 1970s, through the AIDS crisis, to its financial troubles due to the rise of freely available porn online and the company’s eventual closure. Familial interviews with employees and the family make up the movie’s heart, as Mason easily evokes candid responses from even the toughest subjects. Mason’s dexterity comes with years of practice—as a visual artist, she’s spent decades engaging controversial subject matter, such as corresponding with world leaders embroiled in conflict.
Throughout the movie, Barry and Karen demonstrate compassion for their employees and apply intellectual dexterity to their business, recognizing opportunities and avoiding the pitfalls. (At one point Karen identifies their retail philosophy as, “How can we do this cheap because it may not work?”) When the AIDS crisis hits, Barry and Karen’s business hemorrhages employees to the disease. Barry recounts calling the parents of sick employees to inform them of their death, only to hear that they don’t care.
This sensitivity, though, rests at odds with the discomfort Karen feels towards the business. For every shot of her seeking out specific hardcore flicks and shopping for cockrings, two more exist of her describing her distaste for the industry. Her kids grow up shielded from the store (they’re told it’s a bookstore, and to look at the floor when they enter), and her friends at the synagogue know nothing about her work. When Rachel and her mother take a tour through a porn shop, Karen says she doesn’t like to look at the dildos. In another scene she says that although they produced gay porn, they’d never seen any of the movies.
As the movie comes closer to completion, her mother’s derision grows louder. “I don’t like this filming,” she says. “I don’t know why this is worth documenting.” Words like this don’t feel particularly generous to Rachel or her brother, who discusses the painful process of coming out to his parents. Karen’s struggles coming to terms with his sexuality carry about the same significance as the decision to close the shop—both weigh heavily enough that viewers watch all the conflicting emotions play out at once.
I suppose a critic might describe these problems as self-inflicted, just as the obliviousness of Joe Exotic consistently lands him in trouble. But to my mind, the two effectively mirror the fight over values currently underway in America. Like Trump, Tiger King offers a level of crazy almost impossible to ignore. But his success also reflects a crisis in American values wherein the ubiquity of unethical conduct makes moralless figures look like truth-telling leaders. (We’re now witnessing the decline of American values that the right spent so much time disingenuously fighting over in the culture wars of the 1990s.) Karen, and the Mason family as a whole, must manage the stress of participation in an unscrupulous industry that comes with a large amount of social stigma. Karen isn’t always at ease with this, but tracking the process offers insight into a business that shaped a family, and a family that shaped the business.