Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory follows the lives of sex workers based in Bangkok, Thailand; Faridpur, Bangladesh; and Reynosa, Mexico — three locations that figure largely in the performative and transactional nature of the sex work depicted in the film. Sex work is just as much about trading one’s body for currency as it is about the land upon which the transaction takes place. As a woman, you learn at a very young age that your country will own your body until you die. From the façade of classiness and glamour in the Bangkok brothels, to the utter destitution of the crack-riddled Mexican brothels, these environments control and dictate how women have sex for money. Whores’ Glory is the third part of a “globalization trilogy” — following Megacities and Workingman’s Death — that the director has filmed in order to bring the catastrophe of commodifying lives to the big screen.
We begin in Bangkok, where the sex work is sanitized, idealized, and prioritized. Women sit inside a posh club known as “The Fishtank,” while wealthy men with plenty of air miles stare at them through a pane of glass and pick their favorites based on looks and color-coded price buttons. The older women cost less, the younger women cost more. They spend their money on clothes, handbags, and boyfriends, and discuss the difficulty of gaining clients among so much competition. Glawogger’s decision to open the film with such a polished version of sex work is interesting, as if he is easing the viewer into the idea of sex work as a way of life by offering a more glamorous, accessible perspective. It’s not exactly The Girlfriend Experience or an Eliot Spitzer-type situation, but it’s still an incredibly privileged portrayal of the world’s oldest profession.
The second part of the film presents a nauseating look at the slums of Bangladesh, where even preteen girls are bargained off by their mothers for the neighborhood men. At one point, a mother sits on a cot inside a brothel while her husband smiles foolishly into the camera. She gestures to her small daughter playing on the floor, saying, “She’ll have no choice. She’ll become a whore. The outside world pushes us out of the way to make room. Those people are our clients. Outside they are disgusted by us; in here, they love us and our bodies.” The sex is desperate, rough, and everyday for both clients and workers. All of this presents itself as despicable, a kind of easy horrorshow for the documentary to exploit as one wonders how, exactly, the filmmakers gained such unlimited access to these poorly-lit hallways, decrepit bedrooms, and secret discussions between maternal madams over the pricing of new girls. During one girl’s “training,” the madam tells her that when a man asks her to do something she doesn’t want to do, such as oral sex, to tell the man, “You can use me up to a certain point.” This line acknowledges the problematic implications of the filmmakers as participants in every transaction made in the film’s 117 minutes. As PJ Harvey’s “Dear Darkness” plays, one also gets the sense that heavy-handed moral filmmaking is at work.
But a shift in the third section complicates Whores’ Glory as the most unsettlingly beautiful documentary on sex work in recent years. Reynosa, Mexico is a border city on the northern part of Tamaulipas, just across the Texan border. It’s a flat, hard city that is home to some of the worst drug cartels in Mexico. “La Zona” is where the whores are, standing in the doorways to tiny motel rooms, watching all the men drive past in big, clunky cars. Crack and chronic alcohol abuse seem to allow the women to perform for the camera and the men, in ways that are different from the women in the previous two segments. Anal sex is frequently discussed among the clients and sex workers, as well as oral sex, which are two acts missing from The Fishtank in Thailand and the brothel in Bangladesh. The women in Reynosa sit in casual nudity as they discuss their orgasms and how much they enjoy cock. But this isn’t any kind of pro-sex activism à la San Francisco; it’s a way of rationalizing their adaptation to a life of drugs, drugs, and drugs.
In the film’s beast of a final scene, two women smoke crack while kissing each other, one pantless, her shaved cunt slightly puffy and raw from overuse, as they admit “We’re losers,” and pray to La Santa Muerte, the Goddess of Death, for a way out of this life. It’s a gorgeously intimate moment filmed inside a cramped room with a fixed camera angle, the harsh light emphasizing the terrain of their pockmarked skin. It’s like something out of author William T. Vollmann’s Whores For Gloria or The Royal Family. This quiet loveliness between the two women is the film’s moment of clarification, in which we realize that Glawogger is much less interested in a moralistic agenda than he is in exploring just how visceral of a transaction love can be.