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Netflix’s Money Shot: The Pornhub Story explores porn’s culture war
Image: Netflix

Film

Netflix’s Money Shot: The Pornhub Story Explores Porn’s Culture War

Is Pornhub a disruptive force that provides freedom and income to sex workers, or a hotbed of human trafficking? A new documentary looks at that very fraught question. 

For its first 20 minutes or so, the new Netflix documentary Money Shot: The Pornhub Story tells a fascinating story that touches most people but is rarely discussed in a mainstream fashion. 

Pornhub, and a few other sites like it, emerged in the mid-2000s, offering something of a revolutionary product: Pornography, of all kinds, was suddenly available online for free. 

In addition to the societal implications, the adult industry itself was vastly transformed practically overnight: Search-engine-optimization guys unseated old-school pornographers as the kings of the industry, all led by Mindgeek, the parent company of Pornhub and several other “tube” sites.

Netflix’s Money Shot: The Pornhub Story explores porn’s culture war
Image: Netflix

There was also a similar effect on the porn industry that Napster had on music: There was rampant piracy, and audiences began to realize they could have whatever they wanted without paying for it. The difference was Napster didn’t last, but Pornhub did, eventually becoming a place where adult performers could make revenue. 

Pornhub, for a long time, was extremely media-savvy. They would cultivate reporters and push publicity stunts that would get lots of mainstream media attention (remember the “Wankband”?) They regularly produced “Pornhub Insights,” which would push analytics, showing stuff like what the most popular types of porn are in certain states and countries, which often made its way into mainstream media. 

Then again, all the media savvy in the world couldn’t keep Pornhub from being denounced in the New York Times as a key driver of human trafficking.

Indeed, the documentary, directed by Suzanne Hillinger, takes a sudden pivot into the battle that took place when a group of anti-sex trafficking activists — with an unlikely assist from then-New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof— started campaigning to get the website banned, accusing them of abetting rape and child tax trafficking. This led to lawsuits, as well as questions of how far the First Amendment and Section 230 go. 

Interviewing many people from both sides of the fight, including lots of active and former Pornhub performers, the documentary keeps things pretty evenhanded. My favorite interview subject was Mike Stabile, a porn activist who previously directed a documentary called “Seed Money.” 

I left with the conclusion that Pornhub should absolutely do more than it does to moderate content and remove anything nonconsensual and/or involving children faster than they currently do. 

Netflix’s Money Shot: The Pornhub Story explores porn’s culture war
Image: Netflix

On the other hand, the anti-sex-trafficking world is a very problematic one, frequently hiding connections to far-right politics and seeking to ban or censor things that have nothing to do with exploitation or trafficking. And one lawsuit accusing Pornhub of being Mafia-like is especially ridiculous since they’re likely less mob-adjacent than most of the business people who have controlled and financed pornography for the majority of the medium’s history. 

Even beyond all that, there’s a key question about Pornhub that the film doesn’t really address: For a long time, there was no way to access unlimited porn of all kinds, instantaneously and for free, and thanks to Pornhub, now there is. What effect has that had on society? Has it been good, or bad?

To make clear: This documentary is not porn itself. It would probably be R-rated if it were a theatrical release, but aside from a stray nipple or two, there’s no nudity.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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