The Rise and Fall of "Girls Gone Wild"

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tags: media, sexism

For women, culture is split into two eras: before you could flash your breasts on camera during spring break for a modicum of fame, and after. For that, you can thank Joe Francis — a man who still elicits visceral reactions from those who knew him. “I hate that son of a bitch so bad,” Lee Sullivan, the former mayor of Panama City Beach, Florida, told me during one of our interviews last month. “All you had to do was say the name, and I was right back there with that little cockroach bastard.”

Before Francis crossed paths with Sullivan, one of the most colorful mayors in modern American history, he had built a direct-distribution porn empire on the backs of coeds willing to bare it all for tank tops emblazoned with a brand that would become ubiquitous by the mid-aughts: Girls Gone Wild.

It was a simple concept, but one that revolutionized porn, female sexuality and the concept of fame itself. Francis came up with the idea while working as a production assistant for “Real TV,” a syndicated show of cutting room floor clips considered too grisly to air. It gave him an idea: What about a show like this, but for boobs? “I couldn’t believe it. It was like, ‘No one’s doing this?’” Francis told me in an interview last fall. “It turned me on to see these girls on spring break because it was reality. I created reality television.”

Francis didn’t create reality television, but he certainly found a marketable and profitable byproduct. When it launched in 1997, Girls Gone Wild was at the forefront of something huge, years before celebrity sex tapes proliferated (consensually or not) and just five years after “The Real World” premiered on MTV. His COO, Scott Barbour, brought another reality television influence to the business: His father, Malcolm Barbour, co-created “Cops,” on which Scott briefly worked. By the early aughts, as Girls Gone Wild pivoted into DVD releases and pay-per-view events, Francis’ company was a stunning success, making $20 million in the first two years of operation.

For a time, Girls Gone Wild had a cultural hold over America’s late teens and early 20-somethings well beyond the confines of traditional pornography. Francis had, in a sense, created his own kind of Playboy Enterprises for a generation hooked on MTV.

The company’s ads blanketed the media landscape, promising a continual flow of videos featuring wild young women — who looked like the girls you knew — taking their tops off and writhing around naked in hot tubs. Being a girl gone wild was simultaneously an honor and a scarlet letter. Meanwhile, Francis became a legend in Bel-Air, a friend to the Kardashians, Paris Hilton’s boyfriend (briefly), a gadabout with a private jet.

But by 2014, the brand was dead, in large part because free sites like PornHub made a mail-order DVD company look, by comparison, dated and unsexy.

The beginning of the end of Girls Gone Wild actually started creeping in around March 2003, when Francis descended upon Panama City Beach with a few simple goals: run a pay-per-view event with Snoop Dogg, film scenes for another DVD and then get the hell out of the Bible Belt. But not long after their arrival, Francis and several of his employees were arrested on a slew of charges: racketeering, possession and intent to distribute drugs, soliciting minors, child abuse, and filming minors in a sexual act, just to name a few. At final count, there would be more than 70 charges against Francis alone.

Read entire article at HuffPost

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