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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Un cochon

I love Girls gone Wild

'Baby, Give Me a Kiss'
# The man behind the 'Girls Gone Wild' soft-porn empire lets Claire Hoffman into his world, for better or worse

By Claire Hoffman, Times Staff Writer
August 6, 2006

Joe Francis, the founder of the "Girls Gone Wild" empire, is humiliating me. He has my face pressed against the hood of a car, my arms twisted hard behind my back. He's pushing himself against me, shouting: "This is what they did to me in Panama City!"

It's after 3 a.m. and we're in a parking lot on the outskirts of Chicago. Electronic music is buzzing from the nightclub across the street, mixing easily with the laughter of the guys who are watching this, this me-pinned-and-helpless thing.

Francis isn't laughing.

He has turned on me, and I don't know why. He's going on and on about Panama City Beach, the spring break spot in northern Florida where Bay County sheriff's deputies arrested him three years ago on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking and promoting the sexual performance of a child. As he yells, I wonder if this is a flashback, or if he's punishing me for being the only blond in sight who's not wearing a thong. This much is certain: He's got at least 80 pounds on me and I'm thinking he's about to break my left arm. My eyes start to stream tears.

This is not what I anticipated when I signed up for a tour of Joe Francis' world. I've been with him nonstop since early afternoon, listening as he teases employees, flying on his private jet, eating fast food and watching young women hurl themselves against his 6-foot-2-inch frame, declaring, "We want to go wild!"

Tonight we had spent almost five hours in a sweaty nightclub, crowded with 2,500 very young and very drunk people. Clubs like this are fertile fields for Francis. He's made a fortune selling videos of women who agree to flash their breasts and French-kiss their friends for the cameras. In exchange, a girl who goes wild will receive a T-shirt, a pair of panties, maybe a trucker hat. It had been a typical night for him. He'd scoured the club, recruiting young and, for the most part, intoxicated women. Because filming wasn't allowed inside, he and his newly discovered entourage had stepped outside, heading for the confines of a "Girls Gone Wild" tour bus parked across the street.

Before climbing aboard, he walks in my direction, and the next thing I know, he's acting out his 2003 arrest on me.

I wriggle free and punch him in the face, closed-fist but not too hard.

"Damn," bystanders say. Francis barely blinks. He snatches at my notebook. He is amped, his broad face sneering as he does a sort of boxer's skip around me, jabbering, grabbing at my arms and my stomach as I try to move away, clutching my notebook to my chest. He stabs a finger in my face, shouting, "You don't care about the 1st Amendment. I care about the 1st Amendment, but you are the kind of reporter who doesn't care."

Maybe you've seen the "Girls Gone Wild" infomercials that run on late-night cable, advertising mail-order videos of women exposing themselves ("and more!" as the jackets promise). Francis didn't invent the notion of spring break—and all the binge drinking, flurried hookups, wet T-shirt contests and general you-only-live-once exhibitionism that it entails—but he and his company, Mantra Entertainment, have affixed themselves to this youthful domain and transmitted its middle-American hedonism to the world. By packaging and dispersing it, people close to Francis tell me, Mantra does as much as $40 million a year in sales.

At 33, and after almost a decade as the king of soft porn, Francis says he wants to leave this twilight existence and wade into the mainstream. He is quick to list the projects he says he has in the works: a feature-length film, a series of "Girls Gone Wild" ocean cruises, a "Girls Gone Wild" apparel line and a chain of "Girls Gone Wild" restaurants. He says he's producing a new line of videos called "Flirt" that will be racy, but not explicit, and could be sold in mass-market retail outlets such as Wal-Mart and Target.

In short, Francis wants to insinuate himself and his view of the world into the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the vacations you take and the entertainment—filmed and glossy—that you consume. He sees "Girls Gone Wild" as the ultimate lifestyle brand. "Sex sells everything," he says. "It drives every buying decision . . . I hate to get too deep and philosophical here, but only the guys with the greatest sexual appetites are the ones who are the most driven and most successful."

Mantra's headquarters are in Santa Monica, just down the street from MTV, and the décor is bachelor hip: flat-screen TVs, mod lighting, bowls of candy. Francis doesn't show up every day. That, he says, is because a big part of his job is simply to be seen, and not in the office. He doesn't often visit the "Girls Gone Wild" call center in Inglewood, either. I tag along on a day that employees there get the rare treat of a visit from the boss. Avoiding eye contact, wearing a T-shirt and sneakers, Francis looks more like a kid visiting his father's office than the chief executive of his own company. But when he pushes through the double doors, his employees gasp.

"Joe Francis. Wow, I love your work," says one flabbergasted young man who passes him in the hall. Francis smiles uneasily and doesn't stop as the man keeps muttering, "Wow. Wow."

The call center, just past Los Angeles International Airport, is staffed by rotating shifts of 250 employees who earn $9 an hour, plus commission, to hawk "Girls Gone Wild" videos, which sell for as little as $9.99 each. A whiteboard on the wall sets the agenda: "Push That Porn!!!"

The workers are mostly young and African American, and the videos they're pushing are almost exclusively of twentysomething white girls. "You like watching triple-X, right? You seen our doggy-style videos? Well, I'm going to send you out eight of the hottest videos of the year," goes the pitch.

Francis serves in many of the videos as a playboy host, surrounded by members of the opposite sex who appear to be titillated by his presence. "Spring Break 2005: Anything Goes!" is like most of Mantra's video products. Women in bikinis giggle as they stare into the camera and explain just how wild their vacations are getting: group showers, oral sex in bars with strangers, topless dancing. One girl, surrounded by her friends, explains, "I'm ready and willing, and I'm a dirty slut."

For "Spring Break 2005," Francis and his crew prowled the beaches of Miami, South Padre Island, Cancún and other sunny destinations. They filmed women not just taking off their tops but taking it all off, and having sex with one another. Francis is often on the other side of the camera, asking sweetly if he can hold the girls' tops, inquiring about their class schedules, chiding them for being "so naughty," saying he wants to see if they've shaved their genitals, begging them to play with their breasts and bend over to expose their thong underwear. They comply.

Francis has aimed his cameras at a generation whose notions of privacy and sexuality are different from any other. Nursed on MySpace profiles and reality television, many young people today are comfortable with being perpetually photographed and having those images posted on the Internet for anyone to see. The boundaries that once contained sexuality have also fallen away. Whether it's 13-year-olds watching a Britney Spears video, 16-year-olds getting their pubic hair waxed to emulate porn stars or 17-year-olds viewing videos of celebrities performing the most intimate acts, youth culture is soaked in sexuality.

Francis has manufactured his own celebrity. He has become famous not just by selling soft porn but by affiliating himself with a tribe whose notoriety is perpetuated by the tabloids. He's been romantically linked to heiress Paris Hilton and Kimberly Stewart, Rod Stewart's daughter, and the gossip columns have reported that he's hosted Lindsay Lohan, Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn at his house in Mexico.

Until recently, the New York Post's Page Six, the paper of record for this world, treated Francis as an inconsequential hanger-on. Then, in March, Francis hosted a bachelor party in Mexico for Richard Johnson, the page's editor, and within weeks Page Six was wondering if he could be the next Hugh Hefner and even a likely candidate to buy Playboy.

Francis happily acknowledges that he courts attention. The effort, he says, is not about his ego but about selling his product. "Everything that gets covered in my name drives the business," he says. "The two are synonymous. You have to play the image up."

Francis, who grew up in Laguna Beach and went to USC, got his start in the gritty world of reality television, working as a production assistant on "Real TV," a syndicated show of home-video bloopers. He says he came up with the idea for his first commercial video venture after noticing that much of the material submitted for the show was too violent or explicit for network television. In 1997, using $50,000 in credit card debt, he released "Banned From Television," a compilation of footage of gruesome accidents—shark attacks, train wrecks and general gore. Then Francis moved on, releasing the first "Girls Gone Wild" in 1998.

In 2000, Les Haber, a producer who had worked with Francis on "Real TV," sued for breach of implied contract, breach of confidence and unjust enrichment. He accused Francis of stealing the idea for "Banned From Television" after Haber had pitched it to Francis as a potential partner. A jury agreed and found Francis and his company liable for $3.5 million; later the two sides settled for an undisclosed sum.

It seems like Francis spends a lot of money on lawyers. I guess that comes with the territory of filming strangers who take off their clothes. More than a dozen women have sued him, alleging that his company used images of them exposing their bodies on "Girls Gone Wild" videos, box covers and infomercials without their permission. Only a few have convinced the courts that they were unwitting victims. For the most part, judges and juries have sided with Francis' 1st Amendment argument that the plaintiffs' images were captured in public places and that the company was free to use them as it pleased, particularly in light of the fact that the women had signed waivers.

In Panama City Beach, his lawyers successfully fought another battle. Authorities had filed a 77-count complaint in state circuit court that accused Francis and his crew of gathering a group of minors—a 16-year-old and four 17-year-olds—and taking them to the Chateau Motel. There Francis paid two of the girls $100 each to make out in the shower while his crew videotaped them and told two of the girls he would pay them $50 each to touch his penis, according to the complaint. Francis pleaded not guilty to all charges.

After sheriff's deputies arrested him, he spent a night in jail. The deputies impounded his Gulfstream jet, his silver Ferrari and a stockpile of footage that authorities say shows him encouraging underage girls to engage in sexual activity. (Francis tried to use the scandal to a profitable end, coming out with "Girls Gone Wild: The Seized Video," featuring scenes filmed in Panama City Beach.) His lawyers asked a judge to suppress all the evidence, claiming it was illegally confiscated, and she agreed.

The parents of four of the girls in the Chateau Motel case filed a civil lawsuit in federal court accusing Francis and his company of a raft of offenses, including child abuse and sexual exploitation. Eleven months ago, FBI agents conducted a search of Mantra's offices, acting on a warrant issued in Washington. People close to the investigation say the FBI is looking at Mantra in connection with the alleged filming of underage girls. Francis' lawyer, Michael Kerry Burke, says Mantra is aware of the investigation and that similar warrants have been served on other companies.

The more time I spend with Francis, the more I suspect that for all his talk of living the dream, he's pretending at enthusiasm. His franchise is by its nature a constant party, and it can be exhausting. Two tour buses, splashed with the "Girls Gone Wild" logo, crisscross the country every day in search of the latest and hottest footage for the millions of videos the company sells each year. Club promoters pay Mantra up to $10,000 a night for the privilege of hosting Francis' film crews, sure to draw big crowds. And the money keeps pouring in.

But the women are changing, Francis tells me, and that makes him sad. In the beginning, when "Girls Gone Wild" cameramen first popped up in clubs, the women who revealed themselves seemed innocent—surprised, even, by their own spontaneity. Now that the brand is so pervasive, the women who participate increasingly appear to be calculating exhibitionists, hoping that an appearance on a video might catapult them to Paris Hilton-like fame.

And Francis is getting a bit old for spring break. He says he's tiring of the eternal vacation. "It's really the worst thing, in my mind," he says, comparing it to a trade show or a convention. "It's fun for everybody else but me. I just get hounded by kids. It was more fun not being famous on spring break." What's more, the press has been omnipresent and, he says, too critical. "I've been anally raped over and over by the media."

What's vile about this is that he pumps them full of booze, and then has them act out. Most have little clue that these tapes aren't going away. Ever.

As far as the underaged girls, most will be found to have lied about their age.

I bet Bill O'Reilly has a collection of these tapes.

I think a lot of guys think about owning these tapes, but then you think about the kind of guy who owns these tapes and why you don't want to be one of them. Besides, I can go to my friend's bar and see the same thing.

This plays on a girl's need for recognition in a rather nasty way. Show us your tits and someone might notice you. Right.

posted by Steve @ 11:35:00 AM

11:35:00 AM

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