When Porn Is the Family Business? Make a Doc about It

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

Circis of Books Documentary

Circus of Books was much more than a hardcore adult bookstore; it was a piece of history. It was also a rite of passage for many young gay men in the era before the internet made porn readily available to the masses from the comfort of their homes.

The shop was also West Hollywood’s dirty little secret — a hardcore gay porn store, right there in plain view. But once you entered this emporium of porn, past the flimsy double half-doors that separated the general books and magazines from the adult material, you could browse or cruise without fear or judgment. The documentary Circus of Books was chosen as the opening night attraction for good reason, since it encompasses a host of issues that go well beyond the bookstore’s reputation in the gay community as a safe haven.

Director Rachel Mason provides a humorous and poignant look at the unlikely couple from Woodland Hills (not-so-coincidentally her parents, Karen and Barry Mason), who sort of stumbled into the world of gay pornography. The charm of this doc has much to do with its protagonists: Barry is the amiable softie, while Karen is the tough, no-nonsense pragmatist. Barry and Karen’s polarity extend to their approach to their Jewish heritage.

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Behind the Circus

Karen takes her faith very seriously, insisting that her children participate in their religious education. She believes her business and her religious life are incompatible and ought to never intersect. As Rachel explains, she and her two brothers led a fairly normal, if sheltered childhood. They were instructed to never volunteer information about the family business. If asked, they were to respond only that their parents ran a bookstore. It wasn’t until high school that they actually learned the truth about what was being sold and permitted there.

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Like any good documentarian, Mason lets her subjects speak for themselves. The owners describe how they met at a Jewish singles party in Woodland Hills. They clicked and within seven months they wed, then children soon followed. At the outset, the Masons were just looking to find ways to support themselves while raising their children. Their success started innocently enough when Karen came across an ad from publisher Larry Flynt looking for a way to circumvent obscenity laws by finding independents willing to distribute his adult material. Barry had a knack for building a customer base and was able to earn a decent living. So when he saw that a bookstore owner with a drug problem was having trouble making rent payments, he recognized an opportunity and quickly cut a deal to take over the lease at a bargain rate.

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From porn purveyors to porn producers

During the ’80s, business was thriving and they opened a second outlet in Silver Lake on the east side of Los Angeles where the clientele was predominantly gay. But the film takes a surprising twist (spoiler alert) when the Masons see an opportunity to cash in on the rising (and seemingly unquenchable) demand for gay porn.

While the Masons were never involved in day-to-day porn productions, they did become adult film financiers. At their peak, they were churning out two films a week. Their ride on the porn rollercoaster came to a screeching halt when the Reagan administration decided to crack down on pornography. The Masons were caught in a sting operation and their nascent empire suddenly imploded. They hired an attorney, but shared their harrowing journey with no one. The Masons’ fate changed overnight when Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency. The Clinton administration brought in a new Attorney General, and the Masons’ lawyer was able to get a greatly reduced charge without prison time.

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The Circus Comes Home

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this doc appears when Rachel turns the camera on her brother Josh, who was keeping his own secret. Raised in a conservative Jewish household where homosexuality was considered an abomination, Josh tried to bury his feelings in academics and extracurricular activities. He became, in his own words, an asexual “rule follower.”

When he read from one of his childhood journal entries, it becomes clear he was overcompensating for his guilt and shame with the need to be a perfect child. It wasn’t until he was away at college that he came to terms with his sexual orientation. And, while Karen had spent so much of her life working with gay men on a business level, she was completely unprepared for the possibility that her own son might be gay. Karen simply couldn’t reconcile the two.

In hindsight, she admits that she handled his coming out poorly, and regrets the things she said to her son. Barry, by contrast, didn’t share his wife’s convictions for religion and readily accepted his son. His only regret was that his son didn’t feel safe to open up to him sooner.

Karen eventually found a way for her faith to coexist with accepting her gay son. She’d be quick to acknowledge that it took longer than she wished, but she’s now making up for lost time as an out and proud advocate with PFLAG.

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Last modified: July 25, 2019