It wasn’t until Rachel Mason was a teenager that she discovered that what she had assumed was a quaint book shop her parents owned was in fact a gay porn and adult goods emporium – and that her strait-laced mum and dad were secretly one of the biggest producers of hardcore gay porn in the United States with titles like Rimnastics Gold (“It’s not just fantastic, it’s rimtastic!”) Now, she’s directed a tender, low-key documentary for Netflix, Circus Of Books, which tells the story of the titular store’s place at the epicentre of gay LA life, and attempts to untangle her complex family dynamic.
Circus Of Books starts off in surreal fashion, almost like a Spinal Tap-style mockumentary: with owner Karen Mason, an elderly, devoutly Jewish woman, rifling through the stock – that includes a cornucopia of cock-rings and copies of Handjobs Magazine, and averting her eyes from the dildos she hawks. There’s moments of humour, such as Jeff Stryker – star of many of their ’80s films and a man once dubbed ‘the Cary Grant of Porn’ by cult director John Waters – showing off his atomically-accurate He-Man style action figure, and clips of him singing a rock song called ‘Bigger Than Life’ from a vintage skin-flick. (A quick YouTube scan reveals the Tiger King-rivalling number ‘Pop It In The Pooper’). But beyond the ‘mum-and-dad-are-improbable-porn-barons’ novelty hook, it unfolds into an affectionate portrait of acceptance, tolerance and human kindness.
Secrets and shame are riven throughout. Former journalist Karen and Barry, who had worked as a visual effects engineer on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, purchased Circus Of Books when they hit the financial skids in the ’80s, becoming one of the first distribution points for Larry Flynt. Ex-patrons and employees (including Drag Race alumnus Alaska) wax nostalgically and wittily about how it offered a safe space and vital sense of community – while ‘Vaseline Alley’ at the back provided a pre-Grindr cruising ground to hook up. But just as men often hid their sexuality, Karen and Barry kept their operation clandestine from their family, friends and synagogue – even when Barry was facing a potential jail sentence for transporting banned goods across state lines amid Ronald Reagan’s notorious “war on pornography”.
Karen is an expert in compartmentalisation: in a Venn diagram between her business and family life, she can’t countenance an intersection. Despite offering a safe harbour for gay men, when her own son comes out, she hypocritically initially can’t reconcile his sexuality with her orthodox religion, and thinks god is “punishing” her for her business. The most moving section is when those involved recount the AIDS epidemic hitting. Those beefcakes on the front of their porn titles – totems of athleticism, youth and health – die one by one. Karen and Barry remember visiting them on their deathbeds, quietly appalled that the parents who’d ostracised them for being gay refused to do the same.
The Internet eventually puts paid to their ailing business in 2019, and Karen is now a member of gay families organisation PFLAG, who talks passionately about the need to understand gender identities. There’s a wealth of material here that would have made fascinating stand-alone documentaries in their own right, and Rachel eschews any difficult questions in favour of focusing on her unusual upbringing and casting her folks as accidental-yet-pivotal allies. To be honest, it would make a great Ryan Murphy (who exec-produced it) drama, full of thorny relationships, comedy and pathos. Ultimately, however surface level it sometimes feels, Circus Of Books succeeds as an evocative ode to a bygone era with a feel-good story at its core . For a bizarre documentary about unlikely purveyors of films featuring 10-inch dicks, the biggest thing on show here is its heart.
- Director: Rachel Mason
- Starring: Karen Mason, Barry Mason, Rachel Mason
- Release date: April 22 (Netflix)