The Girlfriend Experience

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(342)

Director Steven Soderbergh; Release date: 4 December

Sex, lies and commodities might be another name for this film. It's a portrayal of the super-rich and the world they have created but set in a very particular place and moment: New York of last year, as the worst financial crisis in living memory gripped Wall Street. But Steven Soderbergh tells this story through the eyes of those who are not part of the gilded elite but who provide (personal) services to them. They hope to climb the ladder of wealth and identify with the seductive promise that this provides control over your life.

Chelsea is an upmarket prostitute and her boyfriend works as a personal trainer in upscale gyms. Neither owns real wealth and both sell their bodies - most obviously in the case of Chelsea, but her boyfriend sells the promise of a six-pack and honed physique to middle-aged hedge fund managers. But Chelsea sells clients more than sex: for a suitably enhanced fee she offers to be their girlfriend for the night. So we see a succession of scenes with her and, invariably, much older men in cabs or restaurants discussing the movie they've just been to see or how their kids are doing, mostly followed by sex, of course.

Chelsea's boyfriend gets adopted by some of his clients and is taken to Vegas for a weekend in a private jet. They like having him around, presumably because he makes them feel good about themselves. These relationships are hollow, offering only the illusion of a real human connection. All relations are mediated by financial transactions, yet claims are made that they can be something more.

The film's style is low key. There's very little that could be described as dramatic development and it adopts a non-linear structure. It unravels the values of this world and the overall effect is quite powerful. None of the wealthy men in the film are particularly unpleasant, the only raised voice in the film comes from the boyfriend when their relationship is in trouble and the nastiest act by any character is from someone who runs an escort website, a parasite on women like Chelsea. Yet, it's a devastating assault on the world the rich created, above all during the booming asset bubbles of the last decade. It is a world entering crisis as some of Chelsea's clients bemoan seeing their incomes crumble and panic about whether they'll have to pay for Barack Obama's fiscal stimulus plan.

My biggest reservation is that Soderbergh has chosen to cast a porn actress as his lead. Certainly, she turns in a suitably convincing vacant, almost passionless, performance. Yet, I can't help suspecting that this was a choice designed to garner extra publicity for the film and in so doing helps promote the further legitimisation of porn in our society. Ironically, this is in a film that shows the real emotional damage done to those who sell sex as a commodity.