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A character in an early Grace Paley short story posits, “The truth finds its own level and floats.” This cryptic observation could serve as an epigraph for Andrew Jarecki’s gripping but enigmatic new documentary, Capturing the Friedmans. The film documents the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of Long Island teacher Arnold Friedman and his 18-year-old son, Jesse, for child molestation. Jarecki’s movie gains much of its power from the incorporation of film and video footage that captures several generations of the Friedman family, a clan obsessed with visually immortalizing itself.

On the day before Thanksgiving 1987, the Friedmans—Arnold; his wife, Elaine; and their sons, David, Seth, and Jesse—were startled when police invaded their Great Neck residence. Tipped off by postal authorities that Arnold had purchased European kiddie porn, the cops arrested father and son under the scrutiny of journalists alerted in advance about the bust. Subsequently, Arnold and Jesse were accused of committing dozens of sex crimes perpetrated during computer classes held in the Friedman home. Although evidence is presented that many of these charges might have been the result of a police witch hunt, both men were convicted and the Friedman family collapsed.

Initially, Jarecki planned to focus his debut feature on the oldest son, David, who has forged a lucrative career as a Manhattan rent-a-clown. But the director altered his subject after hearing about the Friedman scandal, and he had already devoted considerable time to the project before David told him about the family’s home movies, which record traumatic events as well as the customary birthday and holiday celebrations. This remarkable footage affords us privileged views of the Friedmans’ behavior during the course of the family’s tribulations and disintegration. The effect is rather like watching home videos of a Greek tragedy.

Capturing the Friedmans is structured as a mosaic, interweaving excerpts of the Friedmans’ footage with newly shot interviews featuring the surviving family members (except Seth, who refused to be filmed) and their friends, as well as investigators, journalists, former students, lawyers, and the judge who presided over the case. The interviewees range from people who believe that Arnold and Jesse were victims of overzealous prosecution to those who are convinced that the father and son were guilty as charged.

The speakers who make the boldest impressions are Jesse, released after serving a 13-year prison term; David, plainly scarred by the persecution of his father; Howard Friedman, still shocked by the charges brought against his brother Arnold; and, above all, Elaine, who claims she sensed there was something amiss in her 33-year marriage to Arnold but had failed to identify it. (She recalls that her husband’s lovemaking seemed more like work than play and admits that she should have recognized his lifelong predilection for young boys. “My eyes were in the right direction,” she muses, “but my brain saw nothing.”)

Although unusually compelling, Capturing the Friedmans is somewhat slippery. In an interview published in the film’s press material, Jarecki, when asked whether the Friedmans really committed crimes, replies, “Well on one level that is something you’ll see addressed in the film. But on another, it’s irrelevant.” Given that Arnold admitted to acting on his sexual impulses on at least two occasions, this question is more relevant than the director supposes. Rather than lazily settling for a Rashomon-like conundrum, Jarecki would have been wise to emulate The Thin Blue Line director Errol Morris by talking to the dozens of people who issued complaints against the Friedmans to arrive at some nexus of truth. And why does Jarecki withhold the fact that Howard is gay until the film’s last few minutes? Did the director believe that disclosing this information earlier would discredit the brother’s testimony, or did he merely reserve this revelation for a snappy third-act surprise? Whatever the reason, the strategy seems indefensibly manipulative.

But not all of Jarecki’s cinematic strategies are so troublesome, and one recurring image may offer the key to Arnold’s pedophilia: a blurry, poetic shot of his sister dancing in a ballet costume. The child’s death shortly thereafter not only triggered Arnold’s parents’ divorce but also appears to have motivated Arnold’s confessed sexual experiments with his younger brother (who has no memory of these activities). Jarecki includes the shot halfway through Capturing the Friedmans and repeats it shortly before the ending, as if to suggest that this premature death could well have preordained the collapse of the House of Friedman a half-century later.

Sex and videotape link Jarecki’s film with Christine Fugate’s The Girl Next Door, a documentary profile of porn star Stacy Valentine. The adopted daughter of a supportive mother and an autocratic father, Oklahoma native Valentine, then called Stacy Baker, acted out her domineering husband’s erotic fantasy by submitting nude photos of herself to a Gallery Magazine amateur pictorial competition. After winning the contest, she appeared on the cover of Hustler; later, fleeing her abusive spouse, she moved to Los Angeles to appear in adult movies.

Fugate spent two years chronicling Valentine’s comings and goings, and the portrait that emerges often resembles the troubled life of a more famous Baker, Norma Jean. Admitting that she has no talent for anything but sex, Valentine is, like Marilyn, giggly and eager to please but almost pathologically deficient in self-esteem. Each triumph she experiences—signing a lucrative video contract, moving into a spacious home, striking up a relationship with a male porn actor—is counterbalanced by insecurity, unpleasantness, and disappointment: enduring painful rounds of cosmetic surgery to enhance her face and body, suffering slobby fans who grope her at personal appearances, failing to snag an adult-video award at a Las Vegas competition, getting dumped by a lover who can’t deal with her self-doubt and notoriety.

Although photographed in luscious candy-shop colors, The Girl Next Door casts a gray spell. With rare exceptions, Valentine is treated considerately by her employers and colleagues and is apparently well paid for her labors. But her gutter-glamour façade fails to conceal an increasingly alienated and self-deluded woman. Just before winning a long-awaited adult-film award in France, Valentine sells herself to a wealthy fan. Subsequently, she flings money around in her hotel room while pathetically attempting to rationalize her descent into prostitution. Fugate’s camera is frequently the sole witness to Valentine’s ups and downs, and one is tempted to question whether some of these scenes might have been staged and scripted. (This seems unlikely, however, given that excerpts from several of Valentine’s videos demonstrate her inability to deliver even a simple line of dialogue convincingly.)

The Girl Next Door isn’t meant to be an indictment of the adult-film industry. But nobody could mistake it for a celebration, even after accounting for Fugate’s gutless decision not to include footage of semen facials, double penetrations, and other Valentine specialties. (A cine-biography of a porn star that refuses to show her in action is about as pointless as, say, a movie about Tiger Woods in which he fails to swing a golf club.) Still, there’s more than enough shock value in the sickeningly graphic shots of operations in which Valentine’s E-cup breast implants are exchanged for slightly less pneumatic double-Ds and fat is vacuumed from incisions in her hips and thighs.

Though the film runs just 82 minutes, it feels as unnaturally bloated as its subject’s boobs—which might explain why it has been gathering dust since 1999. Only a very slow-witted viewer will be surprised to discover that a sex object with no other resources is likely to end up with “Trust No One” tattooed in Japanese on her neck and a cat as her sole faithful companion. CP