Demand Is Strong, but Police Crackdowns and a Saturated Market Spell Trouble for One of L.A.'s Biggest Businesses

John Johnson is a Times staff writer.

WHEN PEOPLE IN THE PORNOGRAPHY industry talk about why it's so much tougher to make a buck these days, Mark Curtis' name inevitably comes up.

Curtis is not an FBI agent or a Moral Majority lobbyist. Curtis, 35, is a video porn prince who has flooded the market in recent years with inexpensive X-rated videocassettes. He's a renegade among renegades, out to become a billion-dollar pornographer, and he doesn't care who knows it. He's proud of the fact that he has made cheap sex even cheaper. He compares his competitors to American auto makers who were "lying on their laurels" when the Japanese figured out how to make good cars that cost less.

Curtis seems to be daring the world to give him his comeuppence.

"I'm always looking to cut corners, to cut people out of the picture," says the shaggy-haired owner of Video Exclusives, whose speech is bland and filled with "stuffs" and "that theres" that belie his hard-edged style of doing business. His spacious Canoga Park office, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, the nation's porn capital, is littered with stacks of videotape boxes bearing the images of over-inflated, glycerine-coated men and women, while above him are 10 security monitors that allow him to keep an eye on every employee and every phase of his burgeoning operation.

He says his sales figures rose from $3 million less than a decade ago to more than $30 million last year, which allowed him to open up a 7,500-square-foot sound stage. Housed in a Valley warehouse, it is a cheap knockoff of a Hollywood set, with faux hospital rooms and an ice cave made of Styrofoam for a wilderness thriller. His success in porn movies, along with an Indiana mail-order business, also has allowed him to amass an impressive collection of exotic cars, including a Bentley, a classic Corvette, a Porsche Carrera and a Ferrari Testarossa.

"I came up with the idea that instead of shooting over two to three days, you could do it in one day. Instead of a 30-page script, you could use a 15-page script. If you didn't move to different locations, that cut costs tremendously."

Others dispute the idea that it was Curtis who caused the price of an X-rated cassette to plunge from $100 a few years ago to as low as $5 today. Critics say he is just the industry's most swashbuckling price-cutter, delivering an inferior product. Curtis doesn't spend much time worrying about what his competitors think of him. He is too busy planning his next move to out-flank his opponents in the flesh wars.

In his office on this sparkling winter morning, for instance, Curtis unveils his latest project. She is a 19-year-old blonde from Sydney, Australia, who uses the name Kelly Blue. She pertly declares her ambition to be "the No. 1 Australian porn girl." In what she may have imagined was true Yank-speak, she adds enthusiastically, "I want to make big dollars."

Curtis is happy to help. After signing her to an exclusive contract, he paid for plastic surgery to shrink her nose and enlarge her breasts from a Size 32A to a DD cup. "Girls that Mark built" is how an aide refers to the women Curtis has redesigned for maximum erotic appeal. "We make the stars, instead of waiting for them to come to us," he says.

Curtis' love of tinkering with the female anatomy extends to his dating habits. Before picking up a woman for a night on the town, he sends his makeup man ahead to prepare her. "That's not weird, is it?" he asks.

Next in line after Blue is a director who proposes shooting a sex movie in Mexico, near the famous ruins in Chichen Itza. The idea catches Curtis' fancy.

"Can we do a sex scene on the ruins?" he asks eagerly. The director, who asks not to be identified, politely replies that he doesn't think the Mexican authorities would go for it. Curtis offers $20,000. The director is disappointed.

"If I'm going to do this, I want it to be good," the director says, trying to appeal to the businessman's artistic instincts. "I want to keep a certain type of quality."

"That's what we're shooting for," Curtis replies. He doesn't change the offer.

Seeing his dreams of producing the Mexican version of "A Man and a Woman" drifting out the window, the director changes the subject. "How's the talent? Still as flaky?"

"They never change," Curtis replies.

Firing up his Bentley minutes later for a trip to a favorite expensive Italian restaurant in the Valley, Curtis sums up his attitude toward the performers: "My mother used to tell me, 'All women are whores and sluts.' And she was right."

It sounds like a purposely tasteless jab, the kind of misogynistic joke that might be told after a few beers at a boys' night poker game, but he isn't smiling. In a business with a reputation for degrading women, Curtis is every feminist's nightmare. He denies it, however. "We're not rapists and pillagers," he says.

"This man has a heart of gold," his aide says on cue.

That was last year. Since then, some of the wind has been taken out of Curtis' bluster. His mail-order company was raided in October by federal agents, who took away four safes containing $548,409.15. He later was arrested on charges of tax evasion. The government said his income from 1986 to 1988 was "substantially in excess" of the $2.96 million he claimed. He is awaiting trial.

His is just one of 30 companies that have been searched by FBI agents and Los Angeles Police in recent months as part of a crackdown on L.A.-area porn companies that ship their products to other states; two companies have already been indicted in what may be the greatest threat to the industry in years.

"It's a holocaust," says John Weston, a Beverly Hills attornery who has represented members of the hard-core film industry. He says nothing less is being attempted than the destruction "of an entire genre" of entertainment.

Weston and industry supporters accuse the government of playing dirty. They say the porn-busters in Washington have been engaging in "venue-shopping." Federal agents, Weston charges, have gone into Bible Belt regions and initiated obscenity cases against California X-rated filmmakers in the belief that it will be easier to obtain convictions in conservative, rural America than in anything-goes Los Angeles. The test for obscenity is basically whether the average person, applying the standards of his community, would find that the work appeals to prurient interests. The difficulty of applying this vague test was first observed by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who once said of obscenity, "I know it when I see it."

Patrick Trueman, director of the Justice Department's child exploitation and obscenity unit, says California pornographers should no longer feel invincible just because they are based in a laid-back town like Los Angeles.

"No one should be able to locate in one part of the country and decide that since the community standards are different there that they are not violating the law" by sending the material to other communities, Trueman says.

The legal battles facing Curtis and others are just the latest problems to beset the porn business. After a period of "porn chic" in the early '70s, when hip couples went to X-rated theaters to see "The Devil in Miss Jones" the way New York dilettantes used to go to the Cotton Club in Harlem, pornography has lost its eclat. Twenty years after "Deep Throat" helped bring the grimy sex film out of the closet, it is no longer cool to be seen waiting in line with the raincoat crowd at an X-rated theater. Feminist critiques of the way women are portrayed have led to picketing of video stores, and the arrival of AIDS has sent a wave of fear through what industry insiders used to call "The Playpen of the Damned."

Video pornography is an odd business, populated with colorful renegades, rebels and scoundrels. The sense of dislocation from the rest of society begins with the job application, which essentially asks if there is anyone you won't have sex with. It is also an idiosyncratically Southern California business. Like mainstream filmmakers earlier in the century, pornographers long have been drawn to the good weather, tolerant moral climate and opulent lifestyle of Southern California. About 50 of the nation's 60 or so manufacturers of hard-core videotapes are located in downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

As much as surfing and low-slung cars, the sex business has become part of the regional myth, where the idea of doing one's own thing has been elevated to the status of a biological imperative. But now, the money, which once flowed like fake sweat on the sun-tanned bodies of the porn actors and actresses, is drying up. "Deep Throat" earned more than $100 million, but a video that earns $35,000 these days is considered a hit. X-rated videos are still a billion-dollar business, but, says Gene Ross, an editor at an industry trade publication, Adult Video News, the business "peaked a couple of years ago and is on a downward trend. "

Some say that the novelty of watching people copulate, even in the privacy of one's own home, has simply worn off. Porn movies, the first to go video, now represent a dwindling percentage of the video business; from 1988 to 1989, X-rated tape rentals fell by 3 million to 395 million, constituting about 12% of all rentals. The video revolution also has increased competition for the shrinking dollars--anyone with a camcorder, a basement and a consenting partner can become a porn star.

"Right now isn't a real good time for these people," chuckles Sgt. Donald Smith, a Los Angeles police expert on the industry. Still, no one should rush to write the obituary for porn. Although the government crackdown has put a new sense of fear into pornographers and the business climate has become tougher, the industry is not likely to disappear. The entrepreneurs of sex have proven that, whether it's soft-core titillation or hard-core penetration, many people still really want the stuff.

AFTER SEVEN YEARS, TRACEY ADAMS IS THINKING of hanging up her garter belt. Performers' salaries, even for stars such as she, have dropped steadily from more than $1,000 a day to as low as $100. And there are younger women who are willing to do two or three hard-core scenes a day for less money than she would take for one scene.

"Everybody out there is cutting each other's throat," she says.

Growing old in mainstream Hollywood can be uncomfortable, but growing old in porn is even more of a drag. At 31, Adams is cast in mature roles, such as mothers and office managers, instead of the female lead. That wouldn't be so bad except that nobody can afford to spend money on dialogue anymore, which means there isn't much acting left for her.

So she welcomed the chance recently to play a princess rather than an aging queen for a magazine photo layout. A muscular German photographer wearing an iridescent blue leather jacket meets her at a Santa Monica costume shop and lays out the story, such as it is. She is to fall for, and under, a swaggering pirate-type.

"What is your size?" the photographer asks, eyeing her bosom.

"36," she replies.

"Oh, that's small," he says, shocked.

Only in porn, where one woman, known as Beverlee Hills, has a 55 EEE bra size. With no makeup, Adam's features are regular and attractive, though not striking, and her nut-brown hair is slightly flyaway. In costume and with layers of pancake makeup, she becomes a typical fantasex girl.

"I look through (porn) magazines and sometimes I do a double-take," she says. "I look like all the rest of them."

She completes the magazine assignment at an Altadena estate owned by a wealthy businessman. When he learns that a reporter is on the set, he hides in a bedroom and refuses to come out. The magazine publisher is fretful. Adams handles the commotion coolly and goes about her job. "I don't have a problem with" performing sex in front of a camera, she says. "I don't think I'm doing anything wrong."

At work, she is neither enflamed with passion nor hesitant. "I think nothing of it. It's a job I'm going to do. I think, 'I forgot to pick up fingernails,' or 'it's time to buy new lingerie.' I'll think about my character. I'm thinking logistically."

Still, Adams does not consider herself a porn celebrity. "They call us porn queens," Adams says derisively. "I hate that term." Pornography "is not what I am. It's what I do."

Soon, she hopes, it won't even be what she does. "It's my desire not to perform anymore," she says. "I think I should have a little more dignity at my age."

She would like to break into mainstream movies. It was that desire, after all, that brought her west from a small town near Baltimore a decade ago. She worked a series of unusual jobs, including one as a commercial diver for sea urchins off San Diego. The boat was owned by a group of swingers, and when she was asked to participate, she quit.

After that, she started doing nude modeling and was offered work in porn, which she accepted. Porn was booming in Los Angeles for the simple reason that the actors and actresses live here. Some New York filmmakers used to fly performers east for filming, but many producers and directors shut down their offices and began migrating west around 1980.

Although she is free-thinking, Adams is anything but the free-spirited sexual athlete her fans like to imagine. She worries about crime and overpopulation and drinks two vodkas medicinally each night to help her sleep. She sponsors two poverty-stricken children in foreign countries. Her rented bungalow in West Los Angeles might be the home of any anxious, PBS-watching, middle-level executive except for the catalogue of her sex tapes hidden behind a wood plank on an upper shelf in a back room. "I don't watch them," she says curtly.

"We've exhausted this," she says of the sex video genre. "Do you know how many times I get a call from somebody who says, 'Tracey, we're going to do something new'? "

Her parents know what she does for a living, but she doesn't talk about it around them. If they are with her when a fan stops her in public, she steers the autograph hound away and quietly signs. Because while male performers can fancy themselves as studs, the women must contend with society's attitude that they are nasty girls, Adams says. The cliche is that hard-core is harder on men physically and harder on women psychologically.

Adams genuinely seems to appreciate her fans. There are couples who view her performances as a mood-setter for their own sexual encounters, and then there are the men who literally shake as they extend sweaty hands to her--she is a sexual Olympian in their eyes. But, she points out, the reality of porn sex is far different from what viewers imagine. For one thing, although male actors must reach a climax, known as the "money shot," women can, and usually do, fake orgasms.

Some performers have married well-to-do fans and dropped out of the business, but Adams remains single. She once lived with a wealthy Los Angeles real-estate investor. "Life got real cushy being around him," she says.

Adams does not apologize for her lifestyle. Porn, after all, has given her a comfortable life. Women performers may not last as long as the top male stars (demand requires a succession of new female faces), but those who become well-known can earn as much as $200,000 a year, several times more than a male performer. The money comes from starring roles in the videos as well as tours on the nude dance circuit in the United States and Canada.

Though Adams no longer appears as often on American VCRs, she remains a celebrity in Europe. Europeans have a fascination for the larger-than-life American porn stars, just as they do for mainstream American movie stars. Her picture has been on a billboard in Paris, and she has guest-starred in Italian soap operas.

In general, international competition in pornography grows more spirited every year. It is especially heated now that the breakup of the Communist bloc has led to burgeoning hard-core industries behind what once was the Iron Curtain. In September, Adams was asked by a French company to go to Moscow, where, for several days, she interviewed prospective Russian porn stars. Before leaving, she shot a sex scene with a Soviet man in a hotel room overlooking Red Square. She spoke no Russian and he spoke no English.

"We communicated by drawing pictures," she says.

Although she isn't sure what the future holds, Adams has been preparing for life after porn. She has bought three condominiums and a house, though she can't afford to live in any of them and rents them out.

But it is difficult for her to leave pornography. After making so much money, she can't see herself working an average day job. "My days of waitressing are definitely over," she says. Though she would like to leave the Tracey personna, and everything that symbolizes, behind her, she can't. Whenever she goes for job interviews in mainstream Hollywood and reveals her past, the interviews turn into exposes. The employers suddenly no longer care about her qualifications; all they want to know is the inside story of the deep and dark world of porn. After the interrogation is over, she is ushered out of the office and never hears from the prospective employer again.

"I'm not despondent," she says about the future. "I'm just concerned."

IF ADAMS HAS REACHED A PEACE WITH HERSELF over her career choice, others have not.

A 1986 report from the U.S. Attorney General's Commission on Pornography collected testimony from and about a number of people in the industry who were abused or involved in violent relationships. Linda Marchiano, star of "Deep Throat," for example, has written that she was forced by a boyfriend into many of the acts she performed on camera. Others were destroyed by the system. Colleen Applegate, who used the name Shauna Grant, committed suicide and became the subject of a television documentary. And Megan Leigh, a high-profile actress, shot herself in the mouth last year after buying her mother a $500,000 dream home in Northern California.

Such lurid tales only add to the sordid reputation the industry has acquired during the years. Pam Weston, who uses the stage name Cara Lott, and who has survived drug problems, says a number of performers use drugs, and many of them are careless with the money they make. "I keep telling them, 'Save your money, save your money.' "

But few heed the advice. They are so thrilled to be making money that they don't realize that most performers last only about two years before the novelty of a new face wears off and the directors stop calling them. Then they must try to find a real job and to figure out what to put on their resume.

The business may have more than its share of tragedies because it attracts people who don't quite fit the mold. Some performers are tortured and self-hating. Their stories indicate that they may have been sexually or physically abused. And their rebellious exterior often hides a conventional inner self. A performer known as Viper says that what many performers want is to be married and to "sit there and watch soap operas."

Others thumb their nose at the rest of society. Weston, who grew up in Southern California, decided that being paid for having sex was more agreeable than earning $3.10 an hour as a store clerk. Nina Hartley, who describes herself as the "Tinkerbell of Porn" and who operates "Pink Ladies," a support group for women performers, refutes the stereotype that the women are being used. "The majority of movies in the last five years do not depict women as merely there for the man's pleasure." A broad assortment of feminists and religious groups dispute these contentions. Some of these groups argue that the films portray women as rape victims and as willingly submitting to whatever sexual whim the men might propose. They argue that these images can lead some men to act in aggressive, dangerous ways toward women.

Neil Malamuth, chairman of communication studies and a professor of psychology at UCLA, has studied how sexual images affect viewers' attitudes. "What we found," he says, "was that those men exposed to images of sexual violence were more accepting of violence against women" than men who did not view the sexually violent material. When the question "In a dating situation, if you coerce a woman into sex, will she sometimes fall in love?" was posed to these groups, the men who viewed sexual violence tended to agree more.

But, Malamuth cautions, these results hold true only for "some men, some of the time."

The makers of commercial pornography claim that their films have not included a rape scene in many years. In most porn movies, they say, the story portrays the woman as powerful and the one who decides whether or not to have a sexual encounter. "That claim, at least in more recent times, is accurate," Malamuth says. "We used to see sexual violence in classic pornographic films. Now the industry is much more aware."

Hartley says the industry has adopted informal rules to avoid problems. For one thing, she says, the tapes do not show penetration with bondage. Other no-nos are scenes depicting bestiality, excretion and child sexual activities. (Child pornography does exist in the criminal underground, and the FBI and other agencies have made extinguishing it a priority. The mainstream pornographers in the San Fernando Valley decry the makers of child pornography.)

But even if the industry is more careful about the way it portrays women, it still tends to show women as bimbos with an insatiable yen for sex. "The interpretation can be: All women are basically whores," Malamuth says.

Nan D. Hunter, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and founder of the Feminist Anticensorship Task Force, says she does not believe pornography causes rape. Although she says it is sexist, "it would be an enormous relief to me if the only images of women as bimbos occurred in pornographic films."

The threat of AIDS also has taken some of the steam out of video sex. The industry was shocked two years ago by the AIDS-related death of John Holmes, probably the world's best-known X-rated performer, who once boasted that he had had sex with 14,000 women. It was rumored that he used needles and was gay. But his second wife, Laurie Holmes, denies that and says that some people in the industry spread such stories to "cover up" the fact that most actors are tested only infrequently.

A woman who asked not to be identified agrees with that charge. She says she was not asked for proof of AIDS testing on any of the half-dozen shoots in which she participated before she quit the business. Performers try to protect themselves through an informal grapevine, sharing with each other the names of actors who have done gay porn, for instance, she says.

Nina Hartley says she is safer starring in sex tapes than many women who don't. "It's a lot safer than a woman who abstains a month, then gets so desperate she goes out to a bar and picks up a guy." Few people she works with use condoms, and she knows there are no guarantees that she won't get sick. "Life is a risk," she says philosophically.

SEX BURST OUT OF THE BEDROOM and onto the big screen in a big way in 1959 with "The Immoral Mr. Teas." Director Russ Meyer described the film in an interview as "a comedy about a man who had the ability to imagine women (he met) being naked." "It was an awesome success," he said. He earned $1 million on a $24,000 investment.

Of all the porn businessmen that flourished in the years since, one stood out as the most influential pornographer in the world.

Reuben Sturman, 66, owns a mansionlike, 5,610-square-foot house in Van Nuys. He ran a maze of 300 companies that controlled book stores, video firms, theaters and magazine distributors. He had one company that made peep machine booths and another that manufactured sex toys. At the peak of his power, in the '70s and the '80s, he was credited with building the industry into a multibillion-dollar worldwide enterprise by using mainstream marketing techniques. A natty dresser, a collector of art and a health nut who once led an exercise class at a Cleveland YMCA, Sturman amassed a fortune that various government sources estimate to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Last year, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $2.46 million for skimming millions of dollars from bookstore peep machines and hiding the money in Swiss banks. He is awaiting trial in Las Vegas on obscenity and racketeering charges.

Sturman's rags-to-riches-to-racketeering story--he is the son of immigrant Russians and grew up on Cleveland's east side--illustrates the spread of the pornography industry from the hidden corners of American life to its arrival in the mini-mall.

Eugene Bayer, a childhood friend, remembers Sturman as "a playful, serious kid who wanted to make money." Sturman went into business in the mid-'40s with Bayer, a wholesale tobacconist. Sturman was an especially good salesman, and in the '50s, according to investigators, he began selling what were then called girlie magazines. The government claims that he set up regional distribution companies that had regal names, such as Royal News in Detroit, Noble News in Baltimore and the flagship company, Sovereign News in Cleveland. From those locations, pornographic material was sent to retailers. According to investigators, he controlled an estimated 200 bookstores across the nation and in several foreign countries.

He became known at Bijan, the astronomically priced boutique, for his expensive taste in clothes and was a frequent visitor at the Cannes Film Festival. He acquired a Rolls-Royce and several Mercedes and decorated his Shaker Heights home outside Cleveland with artworks, authorities said. Sturman has lived primarily in Los Angeles for much of the past decade and is married to an aspiring singer.

His downfall came when the Swiss took the unusual step of releasing Sturman's bank records after American investigators furnished information about his alleged ties to organized crime. That information was never made public. But a 1982 Report to the Gover nor of Ohio on organized crime named Sturman as an associate of Ettore (Terry) Zappi, "a made member of the Gambino family." The report also states that Sturman "does maintain close contact with members of the DeCavalcante family of New Jersey and the Gambino family of New York."

The debate over the role of the mob in the porn business has raged for years. According to two separate, well-regarded law-enforcement sources, the father of a man who operates a Los Angeles-based porn company now serves as the mob's West Coast link to the industry. The man's father, these investigators say, reports to John Gotti, the swashbuckling, alleged New York mob boss. Gotti has been indicted and accused of involvement in a series of murders, including that of alleged New York porn mob figure Robert DiBernardo, who disappeared June 5, 1986. That disappearance is apt to come up for debate whenever a group of pornographers get together. "DiBe did a Jimmy Hoffa" is the word in the business.

"The mob is around. They prey on the weak," says one pornographer who asked not to be identified. He recounted a conversation with a ranking East Coast mob figure who tried to make a deal with him. "You might need a friend," the mobster said, according to this man, who refused to sit down with him.

Still, the extent of the involvement of organized crime in the porn business is impossible to judge. Russ Hampshire, who owns VCA Pictures in the San Fernando Valley, one of the best-known companies in the business, scoffs at suggestions of mobsters hanging around movie sets.

"I've had three extortion attempts," he says. "Everybody takes their shot. I'm sure there is some organized crime. I imagine there is. But as a norm, it's not happening in the marketplace."

The reason, he says, is "there is no money in the business. Organized crime goes where the money is."

"LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE KING OF THE PORNO stars," shouts Skip, the emcee at a trendy West Hollywood cabaret popular with a string of hopeful singers and comics, as well as with Lenny Bruce's mom.

The crowd applauds, and Ron Jeremy, seated near the stage, smiles and raises his hands in a gesture of humble thanks. Unlike many people in the industry who avoid publicity, Jeremy craves the spotlight. A frequent guest on the talk-show circuit, he boasts that Morton Downey Jr. called him a "scumbag" three times.

On the surface, this hyperkinetic, 36-year-old New Yorker with a rapid-fire conversational style seems an unlikely ruler of raunch. He is short and chunky. With a thick mustache and long, curly black hair, he might be an escaped Mario brother from the land of Nintendo.

But after 11 years and 400 movies, his face is one of the most recognizable in the industry. He makes no apologies to critics. "Part of my defense is, it's a very honest business. It's exactly what it is. I don't have a problem with the Lord above. Who do I hurt? I do the same thing you do, except I do it on film."

He grew up fascinated with Hollywood, in an upwardly mobile Jewish family in Queens that, in his words, is all VPs "and one PV, president of vice."

After working as a teacher of retarded children and as an underpaid comic in the Catskills, he turned to pornography. He had studied acting and appeared in some small New York stage productions. So when he arrived on the set for his first role in a sex film, he prepared carefully. "I spent a half-hour in the bathroom (putting on makeup) and they never shot my face once," he says.

"I felt great that I could do it. I didn't feel like an actor though. I wanted a role with dialogue," he says.

He became a star because he had some acting talent and was a reliable performer in the sex scenes. "My big hit was 'Fascination.' That put me on the map in 1980," he says. Based on the Jack Lemmon film "The Apartment," the film featured Jeremy as a nerdish guy who, unlike his friends, had no luck with women. He played the role so effectively that the fanzines called him "the funniest man in porn." Still, that is a little like being dubbed the tallest man in American politics.

In the past, he regularly earned as much as $600 a day. "The best part was that was for dialogue days, too. The highest pay I ever got was for three days shooting at $750 a day. And there was only one day of sex. You feel like an actor.

"In the old days, a guy could make a little bit of money," he says. "But nowadays, a male actor is lucky to pull in $20,000."

Now that Jeremy is older and a bit out of shape, his appearances on screen are limited. He has turned to directing, gaining a reputation as a "quickiemeister" for his hurry-up style. Like all the other stars, he would like to make the transition from the VCR to the silver screen, but it hasn't happened yet. And even though he counts a few of Hollywood's biggest names among his friends, he can't cash in on those contacts because many of them would not want their friendship with him known.

He is disappointed about that, but the disappointment doesn't seem to run very deep. There has been a sizable "what the hell" quotient in Jeremy's character that allows him to ignore his father's disapproval of an underachieving son. His needs are simple enough, he says, a "desire to be free, to fly, to have a good old time."

Jeremy is popular on the small-time lecture circuit. Speaking to Dr. Garrett Capune's criminology class at Cal State Fullerton one day, titled "Sex and Society," he disputes a cherished myth in the business. The tale suggests that pornography has become a couples phenomenon as a younger generation of liberated women becomes interested in video sex. The industry's figures seem to bear that out: an estimated 40% of those renting X-rated tapes are single men, while 29% are men with women. Another 15% are women alone, 13% are men with men, and 3% are women with women. But Jeremy is convinced porn is basically a male hobby. He improvises a typical porn script:

"Hi, let's have a cup of coffee," the man says.

"Sure," says the woman.

Encouraged, the man adds, "OK, let's make love."

"Sure."

"This is a male fantasy," Jeremy says.

He also addresses the general artistic decline of the X-rated film. "Stories, plots, production values--they've all gone down," he says. What makes a movie a hit is not the contents of the tape, but the box, he says; a sexy picture of several pouting co-eds in lingerie with the phrase "In Heat" in the title is as much a guarantee of a hit as a carefully written script.

"People in college say they wish the movies had more plot," Jeremy tells the college audience. "But most people want to see the same old raunch that the guy in the raincoat watches."

After the lecture, the crowd of future law-enforcement officers patiently lines up for autographed pictures. But that's nothing new. When Jeremy appeared in court several years ago on obscenity charges that were subsequently dismissed, the judge's clerk asked for a signature.

After a lunch during which the inveterate night-owl falls asleep in mid-sentence, he hops in his battered, rented Ford Fiesta and careens back to Los Angeles. After parking in a red zone on Sunset Boulevard, he walks to a Hollywood high-rise to obtain a film permit. It stuns him that porn has become so acceptable that he can apply for his permits in the same office that authorizes the multimillion-dollar shoots for the big studios.

On the street, he is recognized several times by young men who ask him how to get into the business. Jeremy patiently tells them to call an agent in the Valley who represents most of the actors. But performing sexually in front of hot lights, with a director constantly interrupting to adjust the single camera, can be daunting, Jeremy says later. One failure is forgiven, though not generously. Two failures and your career is in trouble.

"A few actors pray for help," he says. "'God, don't embarrass me in front of these people.' I imagine the guy in heaven looking down and saying, 'What? You want help with this? Try the guy downstairs, that's his department.' "

THERE WAS A TIME, NOT MANY years ago, when people talked grandly about the future of the porn film. Budgets were soaring above $600,000, screenings were held for film critics and premieres were given the full Hollywood treatment. Limos disgorged celebrities in front of X-rated theaters in what was a comical but hopeful replica of the star-studded Hollywood premiere. The Pussycat Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard even asked stars such as Marilyn Chambers and John Holmes to squish their hands and feet in wet cement.

Others in the industry were more cynical. To them, porn chic was just a lark for straight society. "Society thought it was so chic to be part of it all in the late '70s," says Jeremy Stone, an editor at Adam Film World, an industry publication. "The only people who continued to fool themselves were the porno people. Society changed. They did not."

To the disappointment of some "free-thinking" intellectuals and artists, the porno film since has sunk to its own level--below the belt. Stories and plots were never long suits in an industry without De Niros and Streeps, but director William Margold says he was asked recently to make a movie with a script five paragraphs long. A movie named "My Bare Lady" was recently nominated for an industry award for Best Screenplay. Sex, and plenty of it, is what the audience wants, Curtis and others have shown.

Since the average life of a sex tape is measured in days and weeks, producers are always looking for a new twist on an act as old as Adam and Eve. After spending years glamorizing, in its own tartish way, its stars, the industry is now marching off in the opposite direction by trying to appeal to the voyeur in people.

Amateur video pretends to show average, real-life couples having sex in their own homes, allowing the viewer to feel he is getting a peek at the intimate habits of Mr. and Mrs. America. But the trend has become so hot that companies can't find enough amateurs, so they bring in professionals. The videos are shot in one take, with no editing, to make them look as crudely realistic as possible.

A Woodland Hills ranch home with a grotto and pool in the back yard is the location for a string of videos being made by Jim Mitchell, a good-natured, long-haired director who works for Curtis. There are about a dozen performers on hand for the shoot, and the director mixes and matches them in different ways for each new video. Before number 12 begins, a cameraman who tries to position a sliding glass door on the patio so that it will improve the shot is chastised. "You getting artsy on me?" Mitchell asks, laughing.

Actors playing a husband and wife embrace on a chaise longue.

"Oh, you have the camera set up today," says the actress, named April, try ing to look surprised and accommodating in a wifely way. It is difficult, since she has just met Tim, the man playing her husband.

"I thought it would be a good idea," Tim replies dully. There is no script; before the cameras began rolling, Mitchell had described in a vague way what he wanted. It is up to the actors to supply the minimal dialogue.

With the plot out of the way, the couple peels off each other's clothes and begins to copulate on the uncomfortable longue. Far from crowding around for the best view, crew members and other performers either look on with bored expressions or wander off to get a can of soda or to play pool in the game room. Nobody is much interested, except for three dogs that belong to the owner of the house. They walk in front of the camera to check out the action.

"Oh, the dogs are out," April says gamely.

"Go away," Tim commands as masterfully as he can when dealing with strange mutts, one of which looks as though it could snap off a trailer hitch.

The director tries to distract the dogs and is nearly bitten for his trouble.

Meanwhile, the camera never stopped rolling.

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