No matter what your feelings for or against the legalization of prostitution, there’s no denying that sex for sale is the one crime on the books with a blatant gender bias, applying penalties – if any – unequally to the women as opposed to the men involved. The documentary The Canal Street Madam addresses this controversial issue admittedly from a hooker point of view, but with a raw candor rarely revealed on screen.
The directing debut of Cameron Yates and a feature at this year’s BAMcinemaFEST in NY, The Canal Street Madam delves into the bizarre circumstances surrounding a notorious New Orleans address at which three female generations of the same family of mom ‘n mom sex workers plied their trade, with each successive mother recruiting and apprenticing her own daughter into the business. But much more than a tabloid style confessional, the documentary explores the illegal sex trade as it’s linked to judicial inequities. In particular the infamous case of Louisiana Senator David Vitter, whose secret sexcapades with prostitutes led to his outing by one woman (‘D.C. Madam’ Deborah Jeane Palfrey) later declared a questionable suicide, and also the Canal Street Madam herself, Jeanette Maier, the central figure in this tawdry cinematic tale.
The film unravels as a very personal tour through a highly unusual world, as a talky, tell-all Maier mostly matter-of-factly describes the progression of her life into prostitution. Raped at six years old by an alcoholic uncle, and later ending up as a single teen mom, Maier gets a job at a strip club, then drifts into an escort service. After being convicted on a felony sex rap, she tries to turn her life around by going to nursing school, but then finds she’s unable to engage in any profession as a felon. So with pretty much all avenues to improving her life blocked by the same judicial system supposedly dedicated to ‘rehabilitating’ her, it’s not too surprising when Maier returns to prostitution for good.
Most heart wrenching is testimony from her obviously emotionally damaged children, now all young adults, with her sons either in jail or on drugs, and her daughter being pimped by mom. And perverse rationalizations abound by both mother and grandma, that they are certain they were protecting their daughters by having them work in the brothel, rather than being exposed to, in their shared view, the dangers of somehow inevitably engaging in the sex trade on the streets.
The documentary then shifts into noirish territory as the Senator Vitter sex scandal explodes and Maier gets into the fray, exposing Vitter as one of her steady customers along with other politically or financially prominent johns; fears for her own life after the whistle blower D.C. Madam alleged suicide; and the gender discrimination and hypocrisy when it comes to the women who get jailed and the men who don’t.
On a brighter note, Maier turns her life around temporarily when Katrina hits town and she extends a helping hand to victims in crisis around the city. But defiant as ever and with a twinkle in her eye, not to mention up to her old, well, tricks, Maier brags about her new legal venture into peddling candles and CDs – where, according to her unconventional sales pitch – the candles are 300 dollars, but the sex is free.
The Canal Street Madam will be screened in its NYC premiere at the second annual BAMcinemaFEST Film Festival, on Friday June 18th, at 6:50pm. Both the director and Jeanette Maier will be present for a Q&A following the screening. The film festival is running June 9th through 20th at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music. More information is online at: BAM.org.