New Documentary Examines the Shady Ethics of Classic Indie Film Kids

Director Larry Clark is called "sketchy" in The Kids, which played the Tribeca Film Festival

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New Documentary Examines the Shady Ethics of Classic Indie Film Kids
Photo:Gunars Elmuts (via DDA Public Relations)

Director Eddie Martin’s new documentary about Larry Clark’s seminal 1995 indie Kids achieves a rather impressive feat: It is more depressing than the film whose production it chronicles. The talking-head participants of the doc The Kids paint the picture of a creepy older dude who infiltrated the lives of impoverished teen skaters living in New York, siphoned off their stories for his narrative, paid a pittance, made a mint, and ducked out and into the world of independent filmmaking while the majority of his cast was left destitute. Notably, two of the movie’s featured actors, Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter, died in years after Kids was filmed. (In 2000 and 2006 respectively, Pierce died by suicide, while Hunter died of a drug overdose.) The Kids leans hard on the suggestion that if they’d never done the movie, they’d both be alive.

Here’s how Clark left them, according to Hamilton Harris, who was part of the skateboarding crew that Kids depicted and who also played a bit part in the film: “We were only concerned about the basic needs to survive: Where’s the next meal coming from, where’s the roof over my head? What’s next, you know? We were left where we started from.”

Harris is The Kids’ driving force. He told Variety that he’d been trying to get a documentary on Kids produced for more than a decade. His axe to grind is made apparent in the doc. He describes his experience with Clark, which resulted in at least one lucrative photo exhibition of pictures taken of the Kids kids, as “clearly calculated by someone with experience on how to manipulate us into giving up so much based on where we come from and what we’ve experienced. That felt off. That’s when that resentment really started to build.”

Harris, who co-produced and received a co-writing credit on the doc, does the majority of the storytelling here, which is both fair (since it was his idea) and somewhat burdensome, given his tendency to over-explain and gesticulate dramatically. He’s the kind of subject who narrates his own tears, explaining as he reflects on Hunter’s death, “This is years, I’m wiping years out of my face. Years of pain. Years of lessons. It’s so hard to be vulnerable, you know what I mean? This world doesn’t allow you to be vulnerable.” A better version of the film would have dialed back where The Kids turns up.

There’s very much a sense that we’re being presented with what they got—while subjects like Ryan Hickey and Highlyann Krasnow are able to shed light on how Clark’s presence affected their social scene and his disconcerting vibe (respectively, they refer to Clark as “a little funny or something” and “sketchy”), neither are credited as having appeared in Clark’s finished movie. Krasnow, in fact, says that after reading the script she declined to participate because of the depiction of the female characters as just there to get fucked. “From the girl perspective, it completely missed our role,” she interviews. “Like, these were people we considered our family members. Justin was my brother. To me that’s a much more powerful story than rape and misogyny. We opted not to just because it wasn’t anything we were comfortable with and then all these other people just started coming in from the outside.”

Clark and Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine did not sit for interviews for The Kids. Outside actors like Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson (who, incidentally, or not at all, went on to have the most flourishing careers of the cast) don’t appear, and if Leo Fitzpatrick is mentioned at all (I didn’t hear his name), it’s only in passing. It’s perhaps telling that the members of the cast and crew who appeared at BAM for a panel on the film’s 20th anniversary are nowhere to be seen in Martin and Harris’s film:

With its biases apparent and holes impossible to ignore, The Kids nonetheless weaves a convincing story of how a 50-year-old artist exploited a bunch of teens for his gain. The documentary benefits heavily from candid footage of various participants hanging out before and after Clark had his way with them. Before any movie was in place, the clique depicted in the movie noticed Clark hanging around them and wondered, “Who’s grandpa?,” according to Harris. Clark, who’d already published a photo book about adolescent sexuality, Teenage Lust, would take pictures of the Washington Square Park-favoring skaters and their friends, offering weed in exchange, according to Harris. “He would have weed. And like, good weed, too. Really good stuff,” he says.

Clark’s entry into the group was provided by Tobin Yelland, who met the photographer as a high school junior when he took a class on documentary photography. Seemingly apropos of nothing, but probably apropos of everything, The Kids contains archival handheld footage apparently shot by Yelland, in which Clark tells him repeatedly about a friend of his who would be interested in him sexually. Amid Yelland’s protests, we hear Clark saying:

Can I tell you a secret about Alan, man? Alan is fucking…so fucking…sexually crazed. He just wants to fuck kids, man. So bad, man. He would, like, meet you, shake your hand, say, “Hi, Tobin,” and he would try to get in your pants so fast, man. He’s totally fucking horny…He’s the sweetest guy, he’s a wonderful guy, you would love the guy, man. But he’s sexually aggressive to the max, man. He just wants to suck your dick.

It’s hardly the only thing from Clark here that could qualify as “inappropriate.” Jon Abrahams, an outsider to the original clique who was nonetheless cast in Kids, remembers feeling pressured during a make-out scene with a female actor, in which Clark directed him to “rub her crotch, man, really rub her crotch.” The scene in which Hunter disrobes and repeatedly swings his dick so that it slaps against his body was, Abrahams says, prompted by Clark riling up an apprehensive Hunter. “Like, Larry knew how to get that performance out of Harold. Like, holy fuck it’s the antithesis of any sort of standards and practices,” remembers Abrahams, who adds that the bemused shock on the faces of the other actors in the scene is legit. “Everyone’s reaction is real,” he says.

“I think when you’re a kid at a certain age, that’s what you think about. You think about sex all the time,” said Clark at the Cannes Film Festival press conference following the screening of his movie. He was combative and elusive, refusing to tell a reporter whether his actors were underage (“They were the right age for the movie—I don’t know what you mean”). He and Korine claimed “no drugs” were used during the filming of the movie, which is contradicted by accounts in The Kids of weed being smoked on the set. (Most charitably, this disparity could have resulted from a semantic distinction, although in 1995 it was basically a given that referring to drugs would necessarily include marijuana.)

The success of Kids, including the controversy it brewed, is said to have ripped a hole in a formerly tight-knit group. Of the few who set their sights on Hollywood, Pierce had some success, landing a role in Next Friday, but took his own life in Las Vegas in 2000. (It’s heavily suggested that his suicide was the result of his wife’s miscarriage.) Hunter never found his footing. He’s captured on film saying he made just $1,000 from Kids. Before his death, he returned to the Alphabet City housing project where he grew up, Campos Plaza, and there he died. The Kids doesn’t skimp when honoring the devastating tragedies of both actors’ untimely deaths.

Part of the appeal of Kids was its authenticity. A clip of Roger Ebert’s TV review of the film features him lauding it for “just blowing other fiction films out of the water.” That wasn’t the half of it. People picked up the strong documentary vibes, which have since been confirmed by Clark. A huge reason the movie felt so fucked up, The Kids argues, is because it was.

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