Working Girls: Have You Ever Heard of Surplus Value?

<em>Working Girls: </em>Have You Ever Heard of Surplus Value?

Miles: I just sold a building on the Lower East Side and tripled my money 

Molly: There’s a lot of that happening these days.

Released the year before Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), Working Girls, a film about sex work, is a sharper by far account of “greed is good,” seen from the perspective of those who are bought. Miles (Michael Holland), a married man, is having an affair with Lucy (Ellen McElduff), who runs the brothel where photographer Molly (Louise Smith) works two shifts a week, hiding that fact from her girlfriend, Diane (Deborah Banks). Lucy boasts in brand-name cascades of the gifts that Miles gives her, and compares her white Charles Jourdan high heels with the Vittorio Riccis of one of her workers. The haute-couture names sit at odds and in strange harmony with the brands that populate the film and the workers’ daily lives: K-Y, Trojan, Lysol, stacked in the supply closet and purchased from the pharmacy. Going to the pharmacy is the only break Molly gets during her double shift. Sitting in a small concrete park at sunset, she watches intense light illuminate small children at play. This scene, plus those of her bike rides to and from work, are the only times we glimpse Molly’s city as a lived-in space of neon, bodegas, fellow workers, ATMs, families, streetlights. But even within the confined spaces of the brothel, the city and its energies are palpable and present, defined by the intersection of money and bodies.

The third film in what could be called Lizzie Borden’s New York Feminisms Trilogy captures the city, and its various and changing feminist milieus, at an inflection point. Her first film, Regrouping (1976), was a leap into the deep end of feminist discourse in the city’s art world, a few years after the explosive force of Shulamith Firestone’s manifesto The Dialectic of Sex (1970), which was also the era that saw Borden’s own arrival in New York, seeking the new energy the book had ignited. A collective project—whose production and distribution highlighted the fault lines of race, class, and sexuality present in American feminism—Regrouping was shot gradually over several months, on black-and-white 16 mm film, presenting a combination of next-level consciousness-raising conversations and rituals, observations, and fragmented narratives of feminist New York lives. Regrouping’s exhilarating density of image, sound, idea, and incitement remains unequaled, but its influence was muted by the film’s being shelved for thirty years after screening only three times due to protests from some of its subjects who felt misrepresented. One source of trouble was the film’s consideration of lesbianism, including a central, frank lesbian sex scene that even caused walkouts in 2016, when the film screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. 

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