"Wild Bill" Goodwin is a geriatric gent sitting quietly in his home, fully dressed and speaking to the crew behind David Schisgall's film The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs. Goodwin has just given us a tour of his OC estate, a sprawling fuck palace complete with a plethora of beds and dozens of festive, pinkish Christmas lights. He's been telling us about the nights of ecstasy he has known here, nights that he and his beloved wife enjoyed for many years, until cancer stole her. As unconventional as their love was, the catch in his voice and the tears in his eyes tell us that theirs was real love, one he'll never surrender. It is impossible to stay unmoved.
And then his discourse turns to gangbangs, the particulars of which he describes in graphic detail. But that's not shocking. No, shocking comes when Goodwin describes how his friends have stopped calling gangbangs "gangbangs." It seems the term has become associated with the doings of "those black bastards up in LA."
Coming as it does from the mouth of a sweet old duffer we've grown to love over the course of a few minutes, the phrase hurts like a kick in the chops. Suddenly, he's no longer the gentle old libertine we thought we knew.
No matter what your attitude toward swinging is, it's a safe bet The Lifestyle will offend you. If you're repelled by the sight of doughy, pale, liver-spotted bipeds engaged in sloppy sexual congress, well, there's enough of that on display here to put you off your feed for weeks. But if you're a Left-leaning, sexually tolerant sort, there's plenty here to make you squirm, too; the subjects of The Lifestyle are not the broad-minded, pioneering souls you might wish them to be. They are, instead, conservative, back-yard barbecue types—plain suburban folk with middle-aged physiques and middle-aged attitudes, not at all unlike your aunts and uncles . . . except, of course, for their willingness to happily share said physiques with a roomful of their neighbors. One particularly chipper swinger tells us about the untapped political power of the thousands across the nation who engage in what initiates call "the lifestyle"; they share remarkably consistent politics, and if they ever voted in a bloc, he tells us, they could elect the next president. Given the attitudes displayed by some in the film, that prospect chills the blood.
The film sends you seesawing between admiration and distaste for these fun-lovin' yet weirdly uptight oldsters. These are people who know little sexual jealousy, who bond with their buddies by screwing one another's spouses and who speak of the heedlessly randy bonobo monkey as a model for human interaction. But they are also people with little or no tolerance for queers, people who say they'd boot out any man who dared to come to one of their get-togethers without a woman by his side.
There are touches in the film that made me wonder whether Schisgall, a young conservative who claims Ronald Reagan as his political hero, had skewed his portrait to emphasize the swinger culture's conservative side. In interviews, Schisgall has repeatedly spoken of swingers as unheralded revolutionaries, favorably contrasting their brand of sweaty back-yard rebellion with the self-conscious, would-be hipness of big-city kids. Schisgall is right to question the notion that all revolutionary thinking happens among the young and on the coasts, but his film has the subtle whiff of an agenda about it, and I wonder if there weren't some less conservative swingers who didn't make the final cut. The one young couple we see in the film displays some subtle signs of Lefty leanings (he's working on a dissertation about Thomas Pynchon, and the Garden of Earthly Delights print on their wall stands in stark contrast to the Nagel and Frazetta posters in the homes of the older swingers). But while we hear plenty of what that couple has to say about swinging, we (perhaps tellingly) never hear what they have to say about politics. Openly conservative swingers, meanwhile, are allowed to prattle on until we almost wish they'd just hush up and show us their pale, saggy butts again.
Despite their unlovely bodies and some unlovely attitudes, these people are amazingly lovable. Who could resist characters like the peppy old grandma who takes the stage at swinger conventions wearing leather bondage gear?
And yet, despite the enticingly lurid subject and rave reviews, the film is dying a speedy death at the box office, even by art-house standards. Significant portions were shot in OC, but it likely won't screen here. It plays exclusively on Saturday mornings at a single theater waaay the hell up in LA.
Perhaps people are so horrified by the concept of old folks' sexuality that all the raves in the world won't draw them in. If so, that's a shame, because its virtues more than compensate for displays of more square yardage of crinkly white flesh than you'd ever want to see.
The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs was directed by David Schisgall and produced by Dan Cogan. Now playing at Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 848-3500. Sat., 10 a.m.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.