The Truth About Pornhub

Susie Bright talks to Suzanne Hillinger, director of Netflix’s ‘Money Shot: The Pornhub Story’

Suzanne Hillinger is a Emmy-winning and Oscar nominee documentary filmmaker, known for her work on the Fed’s response to COVID, the NYC taxi medallion bubble, national election-tampering for MSNBC, and a biopic of TV legend Norman Lear.

Director Suzanne Hillinger (Courtesy of subject).

Hillinger’s latest feature is “Money Shot: The Pornhub Story” (Netflix) which takes her unsparing eye to the center of the digital sex business, their artists and inventors, as well as their dedicated antagonists, the anti-trafficking array.

I interviewed Suzanne the night before the 2023 Oscars, and two days before the “Money Shots” launch.

SB: Congratulations — you’re an Oscar nominee for Stranger at the Gate, and your new documentary, Money Shot: The Pornhub Story, is one of the most anticipated investigations this year.

SH: I know it’s a crazy week. It’s a lot to take in, but I’m enjoying the ride wherever it goes.

Do you expect Money Shot to get the same award-level consideration of any other hard-hitting documentary?  Or do you think there’s any chance of bias with a topic like this?

There’s journalistic integrity with documentaries that get nominated for the Emmys. Hollywood is taking the subject seriously. And because it’s on Netflix and produced through Jigsaw Productions, (Going Clear) it’s seen as legitimate.

Let me ask you more about the provenance of this film. It will be noteworthy for Americans to realize that Pornhub (aka MindGeek) is a Canadian company, based in Montreal, created by a couple Concordia students. That decidedly non-American point of view offered you a great many very well-educated, articulate people on camera, no matter their class background, or formal education. Everyone there reads, and in Québec, they’re all bi- or trilingual. The Canadian discourse in their media is something that couldn’t be imagined in US Congress.  You know what I’m talking about. Are you Canadian? How about your crew and cast?

My wife, Alexis Johnson, who’s the editor of the film, is half-Canadian. Our cinematographer, Iris Ng, is Canadian. Of course, most of the Pornhub employees and owners were based in Québec.

One of the best people you had on camera was 28-year-old Noelle Perdue— my God, she should be running for Parliament. What remarkable poise and unsparing intellect. There was a reason why you came back to her so many times.

I’m glad that you picked up on that. The first time I spoke to Noelle, I said, “We need your critical point of view for so many reasons.” Gwen Adora (one of the star models and interviews of the film) introduced us after I’d already reached out to many former employees, with little luck. Because of the NDAs that they’d signed with MindGeek, they were really, really scared to talk to me.

I bet.

Noelle was rightly suspicious of me. She was concerned about mainstream media portrayal of sex workers. I was an outsider. Even if I had the best of intentions, this exposure might be landmine. I said to her, from the beginning, that’s why I want you in this film, because I want to make sure I don’t do that.”

How did you win the people’s trust? Did you give them review rights on their interviews?

Performers Siri Dahl, Wolf Hudson, and director Bree Mills on set, Money Shot: The Pornhub Story (courtesy Netflix Studios)

No. But Gwen had done her research on me. She felt comfortable with me. I think because I’m a fellow queer person, and she had seen my previous work. She knew I had journalistic integrity. There were a few things that aligned for her. The other thing was when I spoke to all the subjects, I said upfront I understood they were rightly suspicious of an outsider making a documentary about their industry

Upfront, I said, “There’s not gonna be a ‘narrator’ in this film. No one will give a summary at the end to tell the viewer, ‘This what you should do with this information.’” I pushed against that. This is not my story to tell. It is important that the people who most closely impacted by this story, tell their story. They began to feel they could trust me and we took baby steps forward, all of us.

When you spoke to the anti-trafficking attorneys, were they worried about being made to look bad? Or did they have quite a bit of confidence?

They were confident. Each was different. Michael Bowe, (Attorney, Brown Rudnick LLP) came to this project very early.  He was representing some of the people who’d alleged their non-consensual material have been put up on Pornhub. When I called him he said, “I’m busy because I have to file this complaint next week, but if you want to come over on the day that I file it, there’s gonna be a media hubbub.”

That’s an opportunity!

He wasn’t quite sure what he was getting into, but I stuck around the whole day. We filmed a lot of press interviews with him.

Yes, that segment with him is like action-style West Wing, it’s wild.

It really was. It was the very first shoot of the film. I wasn’t supposed to be going to production for another month. But when he said, “come on over to my office,” I jumped at the chance.

He wanted you there. Did Dani Pinter, the Senior Legal Counsel of  NCOSE (National Center on Sexual Exploitation)  have that confidence too? Did she invite you to bring it on, without apprehension?

Absolutely. Dani Pinter  has a complicated position. She has her client’s best interests at heart. She’s extremely well-read and a persuasive attorney. I think the organization that she works for, NCOSE, represents has some questionable motives. They were previously known as Morality and Media. Yeah. There’s a lot of things to be concerned with, but Dani was very open with wasn’t afraid to debate when I asked her harder questions. She didn’t evade.

Did you want to further pursue the money and ultimate goals of  the anti-trafficking groups?

We did explore it, we did the research. We had a lot of basics to explain to the audience: how someone make money on the internet, for example. And just making pornography, in general, was a heavy lift. If we had done more segments on the financial backing of Exodus Cry, or NCOSE, it would’ve derailed us from bigger arguments we’re making. Privacy and consent is an internet problem. This problem does exist and it’s an internet problem. Meanwhile, as Mike Stabile (Free Speech Coalition spokesperson) says in the film, the porn industry is the canary in the coal mine of free  speech.

Your opening frames begin a bit like a therapeutic seminar. You ask the subjects, “What was the first time you saw porn?”  It’s a “soft” opening as opposed to the hard investigative stuff that rips open later. Was that your choice? Did you ask that question among your crew as well?

Yeah, absolutely. I also have my unique relationship with pornography, when I first encountered it, how I felt about it. Knowing that experience is so varied, I thought it was a disarming way to start the film. Alexis thought it was a great way to start . There are a lot of salacious ways another filmmaker could’ve pulled the viewer into the  boogie-monster aspect of my story, right? But I didn’t wanna do that because that’s not what this film is actually about. I wanted to invite the audience to consider this stuff at the beginning.

You and I know that Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google et al—have the same origins and issues of privacy violation, doxxing, piracy—why not put some of their execs on the hot seat, too?  Just because they’re not a self-described porn company per se . . . It’s a joke if one knows what happens behind the scenes.

 The issues of non-consensual material being uploaded to Pornhub are happening tenfold on these social media platforms. And then there’s things like Dropbox and things the public can’t even see, because it’s happening all over the internet.


If it’s on a porn site, it’s the most visible. One can can use anti-porn agendas to attack the platform. It’s much harder for these activist groups to attack the very social media platforms they use for their own marketing. That being said, Dani Pinter does have a lawsuits against Twitter  for underage material being posted.

There is a huge reckoning that has to happen with these platforms who make money off of user-generated, unverified content. Porn is just the beginning of it.

Do you investigate whether money laundering is an issue, either on the porn side or the anti-porn side?

The money laundering allegation is part of Michael Bowe’s ongoing lawsuit. He’s avidly looking into it.

As far as Exodus Crying and NCOSE, yeah, we did some of the research. When we realized there wasn’t  a strong place for it in the film, we didn’t follow the breadcrumbs as much as was possible.

Regarding MindGeek’s co-owner Feras Antoon — let me ask you about the arson attack that burned down his Montreal mega-mansion. Talk about timing. You used one media clip saying, maybe he pissed off the environmentalists by cutting down too many trees. Anton accused the anti-porn acolytes of doing it. Was it more personal?  Or is it a complete mystery?

It is a mystery actually. I mean, there’s rumors that he set it himself for insurance purposes.

There’s so many plausible stories.

It  could have been anybody. He may have pissed off somebody else. Where he was building is a notorious Montreal mafia neighborhood.

How did you feel about working with Nicholas Kristoff and his Hand of God influence on what ended up happening to Pornhub and its performers? His op-ed for the Times targeted the entire internet sex industry as a rape and pedophilia hellhole, full stop. And Times readers swallowed it whole. Politicians ran with it.

Nick Kristoff believes that he’s coming from a place of balanced journalism. He has an ongoing interest in writing pieces about global human trafficking and sex trafficking. It’s his niche. Yes, I found some of the ways that he’s written about the topic to be a bit questionable. He is  part-journalist, part-politician, which is why he was recently running for governor in the state of Oregon. He uses language that’s evocative and inevitably going to outrage people; that is his goal as an opinion writer.

His story made me reflect about when I was a producer at the New York Times on “The Weekly.” I saw the close fact-checking process that goes into investigative reporting at the Times. So when I read Kristof’s opinion piece, my first thought was, “huh, op-ed writers  not under the same rules as the the investigative desk.”  —Even though his article is written like an investigation, right? How can he say, for example, that Pornhub was “infested” with rape videos. What does “infested “mean? That’s a strange word to use. You have to back that up with numbers. I was interested in understanding how he got there.

The op-ed teams have much more leeway. It’s also the nature of the Times when it comes sex. They’re pearl-clutchers. They think  they speak for the whole room, even though half the room is like, no.

So, Kristoff’s story ultimately prompted Visa/Mastercard to disallow payment processing from Pornhub, thereby disenfranchising the only verified professional performers who made income there. What are the ex-Pornhub models up to now? Are they all gone?

Perfomer Siri Dahl prepping an OnlyFans shoot, from Money Shot: The Pornhub Story (courtesy Netflix Studios)

Most of the veteran performers still have videos up at Pornhub, but people can’t buy their clips. They make a small percentage of ad sales still, but it’s like, a couple dollars a month. They use Pornhub as marketing to drive their fans over to OnlyFans, or their home pages.

Are you prepared for the backlash to Money Shot’s launch? I’ve seen online trolls already asking,  “Why is Netflix spending money on  trash?”How does that kind of comment affect you as a longtime filmmaker who does not want to be turned into a joke or, or an object of contempt?

I was not naive walking into it. I knew that there were gonna be plenty of people unhappy with the subject. But I felt, there are voices missing from this conversation about Pornhub specifically, the people within the industry who’ve never told their own stories. If I can do that, like, I feel good.

The Pornhub veterans like Gwen Adora, Noelle Perdue, and Siri Dahl who were main participants of the film, they’re proud to have been a part of this. That’s what makes me feel good. I know that I can’t please everyone with this film. Yes, it’s the riskiest thing I’ve ever done with my career.  I knew porn is a polarizing topic.

So why did you do it? What was the twinkle in the eye that even started this?

 Suzanne Hillinger:

I had worked with Jigsaw on Totally Under Control. They were approached by Netflix to make the Pornhub documentary. But what that would look like? It was open for interpretation.

When Jigsaw came to me, they asked, “What would you want it to be?” I  latched onto this idea: web porn performers hadn’t been heard. When have we told their story? I knew that that was the only way that I was going to make this film. I pitched my POV to Netflix, thinking that they would say no.

What did you think Netflix originally wanted?

They wanted a follow-the-money corporate responsibility story. No more than that. Well,  I had just come off a whole film about investigating the federal government.

Who was the voice in your life who said, You can take this risk. You will eat lunch in this town again.

As cheesy as it sounds, it’s my wife. Alexis. She is my creative collaborator in life and also on this film. At the same time I was approached to do this doc, I was approached direct another film, a softer story. I sat down with Alex and I said, “These are my options.” I could’ve said no to both of them, but I’m always going to choose the kind of challenge where we use the film to give people a voice who don’t have a voice. As scary as it felt to walk into this project, I couldn’t not do it.


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Susie Bright

Susie Bright is an author, editor, and critic known for her work at Audible Studios, The New York Times Book Review, Playboy, Jezebel, Salon, On Our Backs, Talking Points Memo, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Review of Books, Esquire, the Criterion Collection, as well as her contribution to The Celluloid Closet, Bound, The Virgin Machine, Transparent, and the Criterion reissue of Belle de Jour.

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