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.
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.