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‘Circus of Books’ Trailer: Netflix Doc on Mom and Pop Porn Shop Is a Gay ‘Stories We Tell’

Rachel Mason's personal portrait of her family business is one of the most entertaining and moving gay films of the year.

Karen Mason in “Circus of Books”

Netflix

Walls of cock rings, porn star Jeff Stryker, Larry Flynt, and a kindly married Jewish couple: One of these things is not like the other. They all come together in perfect if unexpected harmony in “Circus of Books,” the delightful new documentary premiering on Netflix next week which just released a trailer. Deeply personal and wildly entertaining, “Circus of Books” is the feature debut of performance artist Rachel Mason, who turns the camera on her own parents, at one point the largest distributors of gay porn in the United States. Their story, lovingly rendered without smoothing over its complexities, turns out to be a vital piece of LGBTQ history.

Here’s the official synopsis:

For 35-plus years, the gay porn shop Circus of Books gave Los Angeles’ LGBT+ community a space to socialize and celebrate themselves without judgment. Unbeknownst to many customers, the store was cultivated by owners Karen and Barry Mason, a straight, mainstream couple with three children who went to religious school and were unaware of their parents’ business. The Masons long refused to disclose the nature of their business to friends or family. While maintaining the secret, they witnessed the dawn of the HIV/AIDS epidemic firsthand, losing a generation of treasured employees. Still, during that time, they never identified as activists — just everyday entrepreneurs catering to a market, until the Internet destroyed it. [Director] Rachel Mason finally asks the least radical people she knows — her parents — how they became America’s biggest distributors of gay porn, and why Karen reacted so negatively when her own son came out of the closet.

“Circus of Books” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, to rave reviews from IndieWire and others. Ryan Murphy soon came on as executive producer, nabbing the crowdpleaser for his then-fledgling deal with Netflix. Murphy has since premiered his first Netflix original series, “The Politician,” on the platform, and will soon follow that up with “Hollywood” on May 1.

“Circus of Books” features interviews with “Drag Race” royalty Alaska Thunderfuck, as well as porn legends Jeff Stryker and Larry Flynt. Karen and Barry are charming if not always cooperative documentary subjects, but Mason’s gentle probing of their hypocrisies protects the film from becoming a simple historical document. Playing like the X-rated version of Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” her willingness to plumb the more uncomfortable parts of her family history is what makes “Circus of Books” such a vital and brave piece of filmmaking.

“Circus of Books” premieres on Netflix on April 22. Check out the trailer below.

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