What do you do with a woman who boldly declares that she's a whore? If you're Cameron Yates, you follow her around for years and discover that she has a fascinating, funny, troubling story to tell. And you end up with The Canal Street Madam, a documentary that had its world premiere at SXSW. The film navigates gracefully through shifting emotional currents, blurring the lines between issues and people to allow the outspoken, occasionally contradictory Jeanette Maier to speak her mind about life as an infamous -- or famous, she can't quite decide -- prostitute and business owner.
Maier became known as "The Canal Street Madam" after she was arrested by the FBI for running a house of prostitution in New Orleans. What set her story apart in the national consciousness was the revelation that Maier, her mother, and her daughter were all involved in the business. Three generations of prostitutes made for a great news story, and Maier was able to parlay that publicity into a made for TV movie starring Annabella Sciorra as herself and Ellen Burstyn as her mother. But Maier was convicted of a felony, and so comes to realize that her options have become more limited for the next stage of her life.
Not that she seems to have had many options before she became a prostitute. She was sexually abused at a young age by a close relative, eventually drifting into dancing in strip clubs and then following her mother into the prostitution business. Her first trick was easy money, she recalls: $200 plus a $200 tip for an hour's work; she felt good about it.
Maier's daughter followed her into the business as well, and Maier felt it was safer to give her a job in her brothel rather than see her daughter walking the dangerous streets. Her two sons ran into trouble with the law, and one got involved in drugs. In a piercing early scene in the doc, Maier visits the one who's had problems with drugs and has a sharp confrontation when she finds him using again, the day before a scheduled drug test.
Jeanette Maier says that she had many well-known local businessmen and politicians as clients, and is outraged that she was prosecuted while her clients were never touched. She thought some of them would step forward and help her out after she was arrested, and can't quite believe that they all abandoned her. As she is barred from becoming a nurse or a real estate agent because of her felony conviction, she turns to selling erotic CDs and candles to make a legal living. She becomes an outspoken advocate for legalizing prostitution, a "victimless crime" that should be no business of the government's.
Here is where some of the contradictions arise.
As my viewing companion pointed out, prostitution is not a "victimless crime": Maier herself was the victim of sexual abuse and her family legacy is troubling. And did she really expect that clients who paid her hundreds and thousands of dollars for sexual favors and discretion would make things right with the FBI?
On the other hand, Maier maintains that her business treated the prostitutes well and provided a service which hundreds, if not thousands, of men happily supported. The sexual activity was consensual and took place in private. Shouldn't adults be able to do what they want with their own bodies? If her actions constituted a crime, why weren't her clients prosecuted as well?
Maier's ebullient, 'never say die' personality carries the documentary forward, as she deals with employment issues, incredibly nasty public audiences, and threatening phone calls. She displays great love for her family members and for her best friend Lori.
The contradictions remain, the issues and people blur, and The Canal Street Madam is a compulsively watchable documentary.