The family business is usually a point of pride that parents use to instill a strong work ethic in their children while using the proceeds to put those kids in school. But what if that business is porn, and not just porn, but gay porn? Director Rachel Mason takes us inside the unusual dynamics of her family, whose livelihood was built on Los Angeles’s most notorious gay porn entertainment shop in Circus of Books.
Meet the Masons. Decades ago Karen was a journalist who deeply loved her Jewish faith, while Barry did special effects in Hollywood before becoming an inventor of dialysis components. With malpractice insurance rates on the rise, they gave up the medical business and wondered what to do with themselves. On a whim, they became distributors for Larry Flynt and when one of their biggest buyers was going out of business, they jumped on the opportunity and became purveyors of gay porn while building a family.
Along the way, they faced the AIDS epidemic and anti-porn crusaders backed by law enforcement during the Reagan years. Though the nature of their business remained a secret, they put their family first and remained devoted parents as friends died around them and jail-time loomed on the horizon. Ultimately, however, their greatest test came through an unexpected revelation within their own family.
“…became purveyors of gay porn while building a family.”
Essentially, with Circus of Books, Rachel Mason has brought us inside her family to reveal the inner workings of a tight-knit underground community and the entertainment they provided. Rather than shy away from the truth about their adopted industry, her parents remain open and frank about their store, who it’s for, and what it entails. Their honesty reminds us that open-mindedness is not necessarily a generational thing and that our preconceived notions of porn and what it represents may not be entirely accurate. Yes, they sold graphic depictions of men having sex with each other, but they also went out of their way to shield their children from it until they were mature enough to handle it.
This extreme level of intimacy also becomes the film’s main drawback, however, as Mason is so close to her subjects that there’s no way she can possibly remain impartial. After all, this is her family and she’s obviously very proud of them, which raises the question of what we’re not being told. Maybe this is 100% accurate and these are the only skeletons waiting to be outed from the closet, but we can never be too sure.
Though “porn” doesn’t exactly conjure a stable family unit, the Masons succeeded in creating just that with just enough distance, responsibility, and love. It sends a strong message that we should never be ashamed of who or what we are and that the freedoms we enjoy were fought and won in the most unusual of places.
Circus of Books screened at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.