For two weeks each May, thousands of movie producers, directors and actors invade the quiet Mediterranean resort of Cannes for the most famous, and perhaps the most glamorous, film festival in the world. To everybody who is anybody in the movie business, and for a whole lot who aren't, this is the Mecca of film festivals.
Just a mile down the coast, an alternative festival takes place at exactly the same time, a sort of flip-side, bad-brother mirror image of the mainstream event: rather less glamorous, certainly more sleazy, unquestionably more infamous. It's the Hot d'Or, the porn industry's answer to the Cannes Film Festival, complete with its own (legendary) parties, its own ceremonies, its own awards. Held in a large, anonymous hotel complex that is patrolled by legions of swarthy security guards in low-rent tuxedos, the Hot d'Or is an impressive testament to the power of an industry that is growing at a phenomenal rate. And I mean phenomenal. In Los Angeles alone, 10,000 porn movies are made every year, making more than $4.1 billion in 2000.
Hollywood would kill for that kind of success. A couple of more years like that, and the Cannes Film Festival will be just a sideshow to the real event down the road. Forget Bruce Willis. We'll all be lining up for Lexington Steele, one of porn's biggest stars, and proud owner of a 16-inch-long penis.
Steele, in fact, was one of the contenders in last year's Hot d'Or awards. I forget exactly which category he was up for -- was it best orgasm or best anal-sex scene? -- but nobody really cares about the awards. Half the (non-French) contenders have a problem pronouncing the name of the town they're in, and none of them has a clue about French toilets, but this matters not a jot. What matters is that they're here, and to be here at all is a sure sign of success. It's a long way from the San Fernando Valley to the South of France, and the fact that somebody is prepared to send you there at all means ... well, it must mean something.
I first came across the Hot d'Or while making a film for the BBC about the Cannes Film Festival. I'd spent an afternoon in the bowels of a building called the Bunker -- a hideous hunk of concrete that looks like a nuclear bomb shelter but is actually a center for festival screenings. Somewhere in those neon-lit, air-conditioned depths, the porn companies had set up shop. A lot of overweight, middle-aged men in drip-dry shirts scoured the 100-odd booths buying and selling porn movies. The thing about this industry is that it conforms exactly to expectations. It may be a zillion times wealthier than its mainstream cousins, but that doesn't stop all the guys from having fake Rolexes, fake hair and fake I.D. bracelets (to match the gals, who are having fake orgasms).
I'd been told that the Hot d'Or itself -- the actual ceremony -- is actually very boring. The food is terrible, the prizes endless, plus it is all in French. As with the Oscars, which it parodies, the thing to do is to get invited to one of the parties. And by far the best, the ritziest, the most outrageous party of the lot is supposed to be the one on-board the biggest yacht in the Cannes marina, hosted by the most successful porn company on the planet: Private.
Of course, my film crew all wanted to go. Over the next couple of days, they kept hearing rumors about this party. Like all rumors, it swelled into a fantasy of pornographic proportions. This wasn't a party -- it was sure to be an orgy. A wild, scorching orgy fueled by free booze, free girls, free everything. Since I was the director, my crew asked me to fix the invites. I reasoned it might be interesting to go -- from a purely professional standpoint -- and agreed to give it a try. So, in my best English accent, I told the organizers I was making an extremely serious documentary for the BBC about the Hot d'Or -- a shameless and terrible lie -- and would they happen to have five invitations handy? Amazingly, they did. The party was on.
The Private yacht was moored at the far end of the marina, a great, white, gleaming, vulgar wedding cake of a boat -- bigger than anything else in the harbor. By the time we arrived, crowds of paparazzi were clustered on the pier, divided by roped-off barriers from a red carpet leading up a gangway. The key now was to play the part. We had to look like what we said we were: a TV crew making a documentary about the Hot d'Or. Any suspicion that this was a total lie, and we were out. But we had a little trick up our sleeves, a 100 percent foolproof, tried-and-tested formula guaranteed to forestall all suspicions. Known in the trade as strawberry filter, it simply means pretending to film when you're not. The director simply calls out "strawberry filter" and the cameraman pretends to run a whole load of nonexistent film through the camera. Nobody suspects a thing; it works every time.
And it worked this time. There we were, busy pretending to film the sunset, the harbor and the boat, when the stars arrived. You couldn't really miss them. They all had 6-inch heels, giant silicone implants, plus that glazed, nothing-behind-the-eyes expression that I suppose is the net effect of boredom, brainlessness and who knows what kinds of ingestibles. Before they boarded the yacht, they all -- in accordance with some bizarre code -- took off their shoes. Within minutes, the red carpet was stacked with 100 pairs of steel-tipped stilettos, all standing in precisely ordered rows, like the inside of a shoe fetishist's closet.
We followed behind minus our own shoes, of course.
The party spread out over all six decks. Let's get one thing straight from the start. It wasn't an orgy. Not that I saw. More like a cocktail party in a lap-dancing bar. The men looked faintly frustrated. The women looked faintly bored. Meanwhile, we got on with the business of pretending to interview the director of "Lactamania 14," the producer of "Cum Cannibals," both male leads in "Cocks in Frocks," all three female stars of "Wer Ficht Mich In Strumpfhosen" and the man responsible for floating Private on the New York Stock Exchange. Most of these interviews were very short because we kept running out of things to ask. What, for instance, do you say to the female star of "Wer Ficht Mich In Strumpfhosen"? Apart from what does it mean?
As the evening wore on, my (pretend) interviews began to take on a surreal quality. One actress told me all about her latest film, "Wild Bananas on Butt Row 4."
"It may even win an award," she gushed.
"That's great," I said. "So what part do you play?"
"A wild banana," she replied.
Another actress told me why she loved her job. "You get to travel all over the world, stay in expensive hotels, work with interesting people and fuck them," she said. "Of course, it can be very exhausting."
"I bet," I said.
"I'm off to bed soon," she added. "Got an early start tomorrow. Filming at 6. I get to do a gangbang with 10 guys. At least, I think it's 10. I haven't read the script yet."
By the end I, too, was exhausted. So this was it? This was the biggest, the best, the wildest porn party in the Hot d'Or? The problem with porn is that it's all fantasy. It's never quite the real thing. But then, on this particular occasion, neither were we.
"Strawberry filter," I called out to my cameraman as I set up for my last interview, this one a big-shot porn producer.
"What did you say?" said the producer.
"I'm sorry?" I said.
"You said strawberry filter."
"Don't fuck with me. You said strawberry filter."
"Oh. Yes. Strawberry filter. Of course. Um ... it's a ... it's a sort of technical term that we use."
"The hell it is! Get the fuck off my boat!"
Getting the fuck off his boat was the easy part. The hard part was trying to find our shoes.