Film

Sexploitation Auteur Joe Sarno’s Post-Porn Life Chronicled in A Life in Dirty Movies

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Joe Sarno may be, in the words of performance artist Annie Sprinkle, “the Ingmar Bergman of porn,” but A Life in Dirty Movies doesn’t dwell on his accomplishments as a pioneering sexploitation moviemaker.

Instead, director Wiktor Ericsson makes Sarno’s career (Confessions of a Young American Housewife, The Wall of Flesh, All the Sins of Sodom) of secondary importance to his relationship with wife Peggy Steffans.

Ericsson’s focus on Sarno’s marriage is striking since Sarno himself, then 89 and a month away from death, focused much of his energy on a never-realized return to the softcore pornography he mastered in the 1970s. Sarno’s work is generally unexamined here but presented in an uncritically positive light. For example, Sarno objects to hardcore porn, but doesn’t acknowledge that he spent the decades since his artistic peak taking checks for penetrative smut like Screw the Right Thing.

Thankfully, Ericsson’s not a soft touch: He’s just more interested in Sarno’s post-sex-film life, especially his invigorating relationship with Steffans. She is similarly generous-but-honest when she talks about Sarno, especially when she admits to keeping him in the dark about their financial instability: “I’ve protected him so well that he has no sense of reality anymore.”

Ericsson lets Steffans dominate the back half of A Life in Dirty Movies, highlighting candid scenes like an impromptu skinny-dip in Sweden. By filming Steffans’s 72-year-old body at play, Ericsson mirrors some of Sarno’s early Swedish porn, and commemorates the early years of Steffans and Sarno’s romance. Instead of over-glorifying their shared past, Ericsson pays loving tribute to what remains of his subjects’ relationship.