Money Shot - Pornhub
Credit: Netflix
by Emily DuGranrut Featured Film Streaming Scene

Money Shot: The Pornhub Story — Suzanne Hillinger

March 17, 2023

If any company does brand recognition right, it’s Pornhub, launched in 2007 and now one of the largest purveyors of Internet pornography. Whether you’ve visited the site or not — you have — you’re familiar, from the minimalist logo taking up space on a Times Square billboard to the iconic percussion intro inaugurating every video. No matter your kink, you’re sure to find the perfect video for your self-pleasure needs on its monolithic platform. And if you’re a true data nerd, you can even get your rocks off to their wildly popular Year in Review. Supporters of the site will quickly tell you it’s not just about inflation porn or BBW; there’s an entire movement promoting sex work as a career — because it is — and championing performers’ rights. But on the flip side, you have the Nancy Reagans of the world who think anything more than a firm handshake is pornography, laying waste to the minds of anyone who dares to open their web browser. 

Somewhere between these two extremes lies the premise of Money Shot: The Pornhub Story. Directed by Suzanne Hillinger, the film chronicles the rise of Pornhub, told through the voices of content creators and detractors alike. Early on, the porn provider was something of a free-for-all; like Limewire or The Pirate Bay, Pornhub championed the idea that all videos should be available to anyone and everyone. Through advertising and excellent SEO, the site’s profits began to skyrocket, but very little of this money was going to the actual stars of the videos. In 2018, Pornhub launched ModelHub, a place where performers could monetize by producing and uploading their own content, which boosted the careers of many of the performers you know and love today. By not having to work with the slimy studios, adult stars could control what and how they displayed their bits for your pleasure. 

Unfortunately, these sex worker successes are only half the story. Because Pornhub didn’t require verification for uploads, for every consensual video created by willing participants, there was an objectionable one; those who were victims of revenge porn, sex trafficking, or child sexual abuse might find videos of their worst experiences uploaded for the world to see. An anonymous former employee in Money Shot describes their moderation policy, which included individual people viewing more than 700 videos a day to determine if there is illicit content. This sharing resulted in the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) launching #TraffickingHub, an anti-Pornhub movement that argued the site should be shut down. Eventually, the movement gained the attention of Nicholas Kristoff at the New York Times, who wrote an op-ed piece calling for the site to remove all questionable content and institute a verification process. But it’s important to note, as Money Shot explains, NCOSE is a religiously-funded organization whose motivations lay beyond just protecting victims: according to them, there is no difference between sex work and sex trafficking. Uninformed activists began insisting all porn is abuse and Pornhub should be shut down, and the demands that Nicholas Kristoff made (which Pornhub eventually complied with) subsequently caused companies like Visa and Mastercard to suspend payment processing with Pornhub. However, as the performers in the film make clear, this hurt them more than the company because now they couldn’t get paid, while Pornhub continued to make money through advertising.

Money Shot takes a virtually neutral view on the topic, dedicating the same screen time to the religious nuts as it does to the performers getting paid to nut. But therein lies the rub: the aggressive commitment to objectivity results in a film that never connects with the viewer in any meaningful way. Whichever side of the argument you’re on entering the film will only be reinforced because Money Shot offers such a dull version of the facts that it’s impossible to even be narratively stimulated, let alone ideologically swayed. It’s fair to assume that the filmmakers are trying to assert that the “truth” lies somewhere in the middle, that supporting sex workers and condemning sex trafficking and child sexual abuse are not mutually exclusive. This is, of course, the case, but the film only passively suggests any messaging at all, and so the whole project seems merely, blandly informative. In fact, this tip-toeing results in both sides coming across somewhat poorly, with activists presented as impossible-to-please prudes, while the Pornhub supporters frequently come off more like basement-dwelling Redditors or Regina George-esque mean girls.

Perhaps most frustrating of all is that Money Shot also takes itself entirely too seriously — for a film about porn, it’s remarkably tame; if the goal wasn’t to meaningfully interrogate the arguments and factions it introduces, it could at least bring a little more panache to the table than a fake cum shot and some blurred screengrabs (which is not to suggest that anyone is in need of any more “dick pics” in their life, especially when sitting down to enjoy a Netflix documentary). Frustratingly, even when Money Shot briefly hits on interesting material less often discussed in the world of porn — the way the industry supports conventional beauty standards and how its algorithm censors anyone who doesn’t fit the mold — it closes the loop as prematurely as Jason Biggs in American Pie. The optimistic might say that any discussion around the film’s subject matter is a good thing, but the other side could — nay, should — argue that the attention the film commits to the religious right’s side of the argument introduces more harmful rhetoric than productive. In either case, Money Shot is as limp as docs come.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.