A New Netflix Doc Looks at the Surprising Story Behind an L.A. Porn Landmark

Rachel Mason grew up not knowing her mom and dad peddled gay porn
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“I was born to be the gay porn heiress of Los Angeles,” says Rachel Mason inside the sauna-hot dressing room of the East Hollywood club Faultline. Dressed in black-and-red-leather shorts, fishnet stockings, metal-studded white ankle boots, and a Warhol platinum wig framing her Kiss-like eye makeup, the 41-year-old performance artist and filmmaker is fresh off a sound check for her opening set at a fundraiser for the Tom of Finland Foundation hosted by her lover, Buck Angel, a 57-year-old transsexual porn star, author, and activist.

Though the funky mise-en-scène might not suggest it, Hollywood has been courting Mason of late. She’s on track to direct her second feature film after TV titan Ryan Murphy signed on to executive produce her first, the documentary Circus of Books, which debuts on Netflix on April 22. Shot in a style that recalls Diane Arbus’s photography, the doc portrays the history of the legendary L.A. gay porn repository, which Mason’s parents, Karen and Barry, owned and operated for more than three decades—much of it unbeknownst to her—before it closed in February 2018. “It was really weird because my parents were not interesting people—or gay,” says Mason. “My mom is very type A and very religious and wanted kids and to have a solid family foundation.”

Long before her parents got into the gay porn racket, they were two creatives pursuing respective careers in investigative journalism and special effects. When newspapers and sci-fi projects failed to pay the bills for their growing family, her mother answered an ad about distributing magazines for Larry Flynt, and her dad started a route with the family station wagon. After the couple realized one of their clients, WeHo’s Book Circus, was struggling financially, they took over the business in 1982. They rearranged the words on the marquee and went on to make a killing producing films with stars like Jeff Stryker, but they also battled the Feds for years over obscenity charges.

“My dad is a very smart problem solver, so he was perfect for the [job],” Mason says. He had “to figure out how to make a living from the stigmatized territory of gay porn.”

The Masons never moralized to their customers or employees, many of whom fell victim to the AIDS crisis. But in one of the documentary’s more poignant plotlines Karen struggles to reconcile her conservative Judaism with her youngest son, Josh, coming out.

It wasn’t until high school that Mason learned about the true nature of the family business. “I immediately asked my mom, ‘Is this a porn store?’ And she said, ‘Well, we also have a very famous selection of art magazines,’ ” recalls Mason. “I actually first encountered an image of Buck, taken by Cathy Opie, at the store when I was 16.”

Before training a lens on her family, Mason was best known for her performance art, rock operas, and sculpture, which have been featured in exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art, LACMA, and the Hammer Museum. As a UCLA undergrad she once climbed the Dickson Art Center dressed as an alien—an act that got her expelled, though her mentor John Baldessari objected to her punishment.

“John’s real contribution to me was showing me that you don’t have to be an asshole to be successful,” says Mason, who appears to be reaping the benefits of those lessons. In addition to her forthcoming album, Circus Life, she is working on a ’70s-style sexploitation film starring Angel and developing The End Stage of Stars, a rock opera cowritten by award-winning trans filmmaker Rain Valdez that investigates the intersections between black holes, gender, and music. She’s also curating events at the West Hollywood location of the original Circus store, which was recently reopened as a high-style sex emporium by adult boutique Chi Chi LaRue’s.

“I have a very unique experience of being this kid of these pretty maverick people,” says Mason. “But I’ve come to appreciate them a lot more and the fact that they were involved in a major historical battle—and for my mom, a major battle with her own religion—through the process of making this film.”


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