No less than beauty, sin is in the eye of the beholder. Or let's say "largely in the eye of the beholder" -- I don't mean murder here, of course, or swindling little old ladies out of their pensions. I mean those activities usually thought incompatible with "family values" by the sort of people who use the phrase "family values."
Out in the desert about halfway between Las Vegas and Death Valley lies the Chicken Ranch, a legal brothel that is the subject of a new six-part documentary, "Pleasure for Sale," beginning tonight on the Sundance Channel. (The ranch was also the subject of a 1983 documentary by Nick Broomfield and Sandi Sissel, and its namesake predecessor, which was not legal, was the subject of the musical comedy "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.")
Produced and directed by Joe and Henry Gantz, whose HBO series "Taxicab Confessions" you might regard as a kind of exploitation of the weak or a love letter to the infinite variety of humankind (I tend toward the latter view), the series predictably casts no stones. It does let the stone-throwers have their turn, however. And although the picture it paints is always sympathetic, it is not always pretty.
Focusing on a group of women living together in a competitive and sometimes stressful situation, "Pleasure for Sale" might be considered a kind "Real World Pahrump, Nev.," but it also is a cousin to workplace reality shows such as "Blow Out" or "Work Out" or "Flipping Out" -- not a close cousin, though.
Unlike those shows, or "The Real Housewives of Orange County" -- on which the silicone count is just as high -- it wants not to outrage but to educate. And certainly there is more to deplore in a program like VH1's "Rock of Love With Bret Michaels," in which young women are encouraged to act all slutty-like to gain the attention of the lead singer of Poison. But it takes all kinds.
That is where reality television and documentary filmmaking part ways -- a piece like "Pleasure for Sale" wants to remind you that this is a big world, and we each live in only a little part of it. I can't say whether this is the whole truth about the Chicken Ranch, and it is definitely not everything you ever wanted to know about sex for money, but the viewer is never invited to feel superior to the people on screen.
"People are not what they do for work," says a woman who calls herself Sinful Angel. "Because you're a garbageman, are you garbage?"
Of course, the Gantzes have picked their subjects. The clientele, as seen here, are mild, well-mannered, mostly older men; for one reason or another, their lives are broken, and they come to the Chicken Ranch to fix them. I imagine that not all customers are equally nice.
Of the women we see, some are conflicted about what they do; all know that they've traded something for their line of work. At least one, Chyna, a former beauty pageant winner, is on a kind of spiritual journey. Most have a bad past; many have husbands or boyfriends. They come in all ages and colors; some are smart, some only street smart, some self-assured, some utterly hapless, some are starting out, some ending.
Most, one would say, belong to the struggling middle class. By the end of the series, the Gantzes make you care about them all.
There is some local support (from both sexes) for the place: "They are medically clean, they are financially clean and they provide a service that is older than I am -- and I'm old," says one live-and-let-live retiree. But the film suggests that the brothel, which has operated in or near Pahrump since 1976, is threatened by the success of Las Vegas as the surrounding desert is colonized for bedroom communities. A housing development is scheduled to go in right next door.
Although the show is superficially about sex, and there's a little bit of sex in it, it's not especially sexy -- tender is more like it. (The atmosphere at the Chicken Ranch is not much different, in its way, from a Vegas wedding chapel.) The film's real subject, in a roundabout way, is love.
"I like this," says Rose, the fetish specialist and the brothel's voice of reason. (We first meet her with a client whose thing is balloons.) "To see what's real."
'Pleasure for Sale'
Where: Sundance Channel
When: 11 tonight
Rating: TV-MA-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and sex)