Whoreable Critic Rating: 6/10
This is why the lines you put into the mouth of a sex worker character are extremely important, and carry weight.
“This is a story about control” is the first line spoken in Hustlers, the 2019 adaption of the 2015 NY Magazine article entitled “The Hustlers of Scores.” It’s a voiceover from Destiny, the films protagonist played by Constane Wu, inspired by Rosalyn Keo, a stripper who became infamous for her scheme to drug and run dry Wall Street brokers and other wealthy men at Scores Gentlemens Club after the 2008 financial crisis that left many devastated, especially the adult industry whose primary clientele was heavily affected by the stock market crash. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of Rosalyn and fellow dancer Smanatha Barbash (who inspired JLo’s character Ramona in the film) by now, and a lot of strippers and sex workers had a lot to say when Hustler’s released. Most conversations surrounded the unethical production of the film, including JLo’s ludicrous paycheck, the takeover of the Show Palace strip club in Queens, NY for two months of filming that included zero compensation to the dancers they put out of work and displaced, and the fact that neither Keo nor Barbash were involved in the production of the film. Barbash, who was offered a number “worth less than one of my handbags” has even pursued a lawsuit against JLo’s production company for $20 million for exploiting her character and likeness without her consent.
With all of that being said, is this a story about control if the two women who lived this experience were not given the chance to control the narrative or profit from it? I would say, respectfully, fuck no. However, the purpose of this series is to cast a critical eye on the media portrayal of sex workers for entertainment, and how that impacts society’s view on the industry and the individuals as a whole. As a sex worker, it’s almost immediately obvious when real sex workers have been involved in the production or have been used for their likeness but not given a real voice. The story behind the making of Hustlers is much more of a story about control, or the lack thereof, than the film itself.
Now, viewing this as a dancer who has worked in gentlemen's clubs in NYC for 5 years, the beginning montage is all very relatable; the circling aimlessly around the club, rejection after rejection, horny customers in VIP rooms, the aggressive host interaction, and the misleading tip-out all felt very authentic. JLo, or Ramona as I’ll call her even though this was pretty much just a JLo film, makes her first screen appearance and the stage set is cringe at best. My favorite cameos are of course from the real sex workers seen on screen, Cardi B and Jaq the Stripper, who even gets a few funny lines in the endearing dressing room scene. I think it’s popular opinion that Cardi B should have gotten a larger role in the production, as she brought the most authenticity to the film, being a real stripper from the Bronx. After this is when the story really gets its momentum, as Ramona brings Destiny under her wing and shows her the ropes of the club, and the glory days pre-financial crisis are shown through a voiceover of Destiny describing 2007 as being the best year, where she “made more than a fucking brain surgeon” and was able to pay off her grandmothers debt and buy herself an SUV. I’ll admit, the wardrobe is on point consisting of obnoxious duster furs, Bebe bedazzled tops, and suede thigh-high boots. However, this Usher scene did not age well, and I might have to knock an entire numerical rating for this absolute mess. TW: Usher dollars.
Fast forward to the financial crisis, this halt in the story is shown through news broadcasting clips, and the starkness gave me instant flashbacks to the first real news of lockdown in 2020. There’s no money to be made in the clubs, and Destiny and Ramona who were once thriving are forced to find other means of income. Ramona resorts to retail with another dancer Mercedes, and Destiny has a child with her toxic boyfriend Johnny (played by G-Eazy) and goes off the grid. A couple years later, she’s desperate to return to dancing after breaking up with Johnny, and calls a few old clients to test the waters. When she returns to the club in 2011, she’s shocked to find it still dead and inhabited by mostly young Russian models willing to give blowjobs in VIP for $300 a pop. I got pretty emotional watching this for the first time since the pandemic, just how dark it feels returning to a post-pandemic club in NYC. I know everyone’s experience has been different since returning, or for those who were able to work in some capacity through the pandemic, but I think we can universally agree it is not the same, and we’re still wondering if it ever will be again. It’s a tough pill to swallow.
At this time, Destiny is relieved to see Ramona in the club, and Ramona brings her into her latest scheme, which is the technique of “fishing.” Fishing feels very reminiscent of promotional practices used by modern clubs (minus the drugs) where dancers go to nice restaurants and bars and scout for customers to bring into the club for VIP. Ramona takes this up a notch by using a dash of an Ecstasy-Ketamine mixture in their drinks to get them good and semi-conscious so they can empty their wallets quicker and in much larger sums. Her logic is rooted in “These men steal from everyone in this country anyways,” and truthfully, I couldn’t agree more. It’s a question of morality most don’t want to debate, but it’s hard to have empathy for a bunch of rich white men who may have lost money, but can never truly lose their positions of power and privilege in society, which they use to manipulate and control everyone beneath them.
Of course, this practice is going well at first, as Destiny and Ramona recruit other girls (some being past dancers, some being sex workers found on Backpage) and they’re bringing in up to $100,000 a week at the club. However, as all schemes do, it begins to get increasingly risky, as they’re extracting larger sums, involving some women who have issues with addiction, and people are catching on. Ramona and Destiny’s friendship is seen to be tearing at the seams, as Ramona leaves Destiny with a customer nearly dead, and an altercation where Ramona accuses Destiny of being an “ungrateful little bitch.” I appreciated that the narrative of Hustlers centers around female friendships rather than romantic relationships, but Ramona and Destiny's demise ultimately shows how sometimes the “sisterhood” found in hoe-ships can be fickle and actually very surface level - there's not much underneath how you mutually benefit each other and the money you’re bringing in together. While there can be many genuine relationships formed in this industry, I have experienced and seen both ends of the spectrum. The toxic dynamic between Ramona and Destiny is one rooted in internalized capitalism and misogyny, but birthed out of desperation and the need to provide for their children.
I got extremely emotional when Ramona looks at Destiny, after she confesses she took the plea deal after they’ve been arrested and threatened with jail time, and says “Motherhood is a mental illness,” knowing why she chose to betray her and respects the sacrifice she made. I felt this moment truly humanized these two women, and showed them as more than the “lying, scheming whores” that society has painted them as, and shows them as mothers willing to do anything to provide a good life for their children. I then thought, “Will anyone but sex workers feel this moment? Or is everyone too wrapped up in the glitz and glam of JLo?”
Hustlers the film is unfortunately a direct rip of the 2015 article, and almost verbatim in some areas. Many of Destiny’s lines were taken word-for-word and used as Wu’s lines in the film. There was one line I wanted to investigate, that was in reference to the success of Destiny and Ramonas scheme where Destiny proudly states, “I was no just a longer a disposable dancer; I was the CFO of my own fucking corporation.” I was intrigued to find out that this was actually not something that Roselyn said about herself, but rather were words written by the author of the original article, Jessica Pressler. I thought this was an interesting choice to include, as this is not a reflection of Roselyns personal view, but rather may be a reflection of the director/writer Lorene Scafaria’s views of strippers; are we disposable and replaceable unless we do something sensational that risks our lives and livelihoods but fuels your entertainment? What do you want the audience to believe when they hear a line like this? This is why the lines you put into the mouth of a sex worker character are extremely important, and carry weight. If you read the original article, which I highly encourage you to do, you will be reminded that the stigma of sex work is so dangerous, and stretches so far. Roselyn reflects on a patron who they successfully scammed, and in the aftermath of his corporate card being maxed out a strip club non-consensually, he loses his job and is unable to get another job in his field due to the stigma of even going to a strip club. Let that reality sink in.
Somehow, despite lacking the visual sensation of a film, the article is still more interesting because you can tell it’s Roselyn’s real voice. The choice to not have Barbash or Keo be a part of the film in the Executive Producer role they deserved was a huge miss, and it would have given the film immensely more value than the mere $6,000 they offered Barbash for life rights.
There is some beautiful wisdom and vulnerability in the original article, and if you read, you’ll quickly realize that Roselyn (Destiny) was not seen as Romana’s equal in the film, but more of her ride-or-die sidekick. Roselyn’s philosophical, analytical side and clear sense for business was not highlighted enough in my opinion. But Hollywood wanted to make a JLo film, so they made a fucking JLo film. Ramona was a spectacle, and Destiny was who kept her ten toes on the ground. My heart lies, and always will lie with the real hustlers, and for that I have to give Hustlers a 6/10. If this was a story about control, give that control to the whores who gave you a story.