Documentary Review: Kids, parents and customers grow up around porn in the “Circus of Books”

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The kids had simple instructions growing up.

“Don’t look around, look down at the floor” whenever they had to visit Mom and Dad’s business.

“Don’t ask a lot of questions.”

If other kids or their parents trot out the “So, what do your parents do?” query, “Tell them we own a bookstore.”

Whatever you do, don’t mention the name. Because “Circus of Books” was famous — infamous, notorious — and not just in West Hollywood, not just in Los Angeles. It was a pioneering porn emporium, caught up in legal test cases, an original distributor of “Hustler Magazine” and a producer-distributor of gay porn movies, on Betamax, VHS and later DVD.

It was a landmark “for every pervert in America,” a former employee jokes, a safe space for social gathering and even “cruising” for people who had been mostly underground only a few years before it opened.

And Karen and Barry Mason were the couple behind it. They fell into the business — she had been a journalist who wrote a lot about “smut raids” and even profiled “Hustler” publisher Larry Flynt back in Cincinnati. He was a tinkerer, a one-time movie effects artist who worked on “2001” and “Star Trek.” Up against a wall, with a growing family to support, they took over a dingy bookstore, changed its focus and became famous.

Daughter Rachel Mason, the director of “Circus of Books,” takes a shot at presenting a Jewish West Hollywood version of “An American Family,” the groundbreaking PBS cinema verite documentary series that showed a “typical” family with what seemed quite atypical rifts, roiled by the challenges and changes of the sexual revolution.

But the Masons and their “Mom and Pop” bookstore were anything but typical, although nowadays, the long and seemingly happy marriage, children still speaking to them, you’d be comfortable labeling them “normal.”

The film lacks much in the way of drama. One of their three children came out as gay. It’s hard to expect tension and drama to come from that (no matter what worries that child had) when your parents have a gay-friendly business filled with gay employees, like the drag queen-clerk Alaska.

Homosexuality may have been, as mother Karen (who “wears the pants” in the family) notes, “an abomination in our religion.” But they’re no hypocrites.

Employees, friends and customers find laughs in the promiscuous atmosphere such a  store invited in gay West Hollywood in the ’80s. Uninhibited customers — and some employees — who were a bit fuzzy on decorum and boundaries — would hook up in the stacks of “Blue Boy” and “Mandate” magazines, sex toy collections and videos like “A Rim with a View.”

The funniest moment in the movie might be the tour Barry is giving where he points  and says, “And this is our ADULT section.”

Say what now?

It was all good clean — OK, not so clean — fun, clerk Alaska Thunder—k giggles.

“I’m a weirdo and kind of a pervert, I guess,” Alaska jokes. You couldn’t mind those labels if you wanted to work at a business where the back entrance area was nicknamed “Vaseline Alley.”

AIDS is mentioned, but more or less skipped over. The film is more concerned with the changing economy that dooms bookstores in general, that has wiped out porn as a DVD industry and that “Circus of Books” must navigate. “I kind of wish the movie was over, so I could see how this turns out” Karen notes and she donates (to academic archives) and trashes inventory that no longer sells.

Larry Flynt gives a testimonial to the couple’s “honesty” and guts, their legal struggles mirroring his own (but he was rich) in the days of the  Reagan/Ed Meese War on Pornography.

Porn star Jeff Stryker remembers making movies for the Masons’ video distributing arm.

The Masons never allowed themselves the luxury of being judgmental, although Karen’s eagerness to scurry through a porn industry Expo, making a couple of deals and all but sprinting out, suggests some discomfort with having the world they work in filmed and archived for eternity.

The film doesn’t judge, either. Viewers who might cringe at the subject matter can decide for themselves if the sweeping changes in the culture that the ensuing decades have brought have been glorious, catastrophic or a seriously mixed bag.

An end to “porn” prosecutions and gay civil rights, sure. But let’s not think too much about a coarsening of the culture, with the phrase “I f—-d a porn star” reaching the White House thanks to the Christian Right’s choice for president.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sexual content

Cast: Karen Mason, Rachel Mason, Barry Mason, Larry Flynt, Jeff Stryker, Alaska

Credits: Written and directed by Rachel Mason. A Netflix Original

Running time:

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