Versace, Champagne and Gold: Meet the Director Turning Porn Into High Art

Versace, Champagne and Gold: Meet the Director Turning Porn Into High Art

"The gold, the lifestyle, the nice car, the Versace, all that shit, the nice watch, it's kind of like, that's how you hook people," says Lansky. Brian Guido for RollingStone.com

After piracy and tube sites took over porn, Greg Lansky believed people would pay for a good product – and he created an empire

After piracy and tube sites took over porn, Greg Lansky believed people would pay for a good product – and he created an empire

It's a Thursday afternoon in February, but it feels like Christmas morning in the Studio City, California, office where Greg Lansky's adult entertainment empire is headquartered. At the center of the office, which resembles a tech start-up with its open floor plan and clusters of video editing bays with flat-screen monitors, is the unmistakable gold couch that appears all over the Instagram account of his youngest and most mainstream brand, Vixen. Luxury gift bags fill the glass table in front of the couch, which sits in front of a shelf holding dozens of shiny gold AVN Awards. Lansky, who wears rose-colored Aviators and an unbuttoned silk Versace shirt over a black turtleneck and black jeans, is giddy with the enthusiasm of a proud parent playing Santa.

"First gift!" he shouts, directing the porn star Abella Danger to a Tiffany gift bag and a box of Christian Louboutin pumps. The monthly gifting ceremony is broadcast from the office to thousands of viewers on Instagram Live, when Lansky chooses a "remarkable" porn star to be his newest Vixen Angel. Essentially a brand ambassador, previous Vixen Angels include Tori Black, Anna Foxx and the late August Ames, whose December suicide still haunts Lansky. (He's working with her widower to help develop a suicide prevention project in her name.) The role of Vixen Angel, which also comes with an ambitious photo shoot that could be mistaken for a high-fashion ad campaign, is the driving force behind Lansky's push to get Vixen noticed – not just as a porn company, but as a lifestyle brand with mainstream appeal.

"The gold, the lifestyle, the nice car, the Versace, all that shit, the nice watch, it's kind of like, that's how you hook people," says Lansky, who is 35 and speaks with a thick French accent. "From there it's like, by the way, look at those great photos and look at those great videos and look at those great artists that I work with."

The artists are porn stars, of course, but Lansky sees their roles as more than that. His Vixen Angel photo shoots, which he's compiled into a glossy coffee table book in his office and hopes to someday mount in an art gallery, have reimagined porn stars as action heroes, movie stars and athletes, complete with sports cars, helicopters and guns. The shoots aren't cheap, with some costing more than $30,000, Lansky says. He admits they rarely correspond to membership sales of Vixen or his other sites, Blacked – billed as "the highest quality interracial library" – and Tushy, whose tagline is "the art of anal sex." For $29.95 a month, members get unlimited access to that brand's online library of porn videos, many of them highly stylized with a limited color palette, natural lighting and high-contrast sets. To Lansky, the Vixen Angel shoots are an investment in a more long-term goal that's harder to define: Changing the culture's perception of porn.

"Who the hell is going to have me hang out of a helicopter for porn's sake?" says Black, who did just that, while wearing shiny black Louboutins, during her Vixen Angel photo shoot in January. "It's very stylized, which is important because of our perception in the world. We're really making a push to elevate porn stars."

Lansky's mission is one that resonates with Black, who is supermodel-tall and wears her long brown hair in a high ponytail. Working in porn since she was 18, Black turned to Lansky for help when she decided to return to the industry following the hiatus she took to give birth to her two children, now ages five and eight. "I've done so many scenes and movies and it really just becomes repetitive and for me there was no reason to come back and do more of the same," she says. "I really needed an opportunity that was going to be different from the rest, and so I waited for a company that was worthwhile." Over a sushi meeting, Lansky and Black hatched a plan for her comeback, which included the helicopter photo shoot and a Basic Instinct-inspired porn video, Black's first in seven years. "In America, everyone loves a good comeback," says Lansky. "That word doesn't even exist in French." 

Lansky has an eye for tapping into the cultural zeitgeist, but his dream of mainstreaming the porn industry is riddled with challenges, particularly at a time when porn stars have become fodder for comedians and political pundits, owing to President Donald Trump's alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. And they might be the one group equally disdained by conservatives and liberals alike: Republican lawmakers in some states have declared porn a public health risk, while left-leaning celebrities like Judd Apatow and Chelsea Handler have caught flak for inadvertently demonizing porn stars in anti-Trump tweets about the Daniels scandal. "We've been the scapegoat and the target for every single agenda from the left and the right for the past I don't know how many years," says Lansky. "We're like the witches of the world, and I think people are sick of it."

Lansky's life may look like it's all helicopter rides and champagne toasts, judging by his Instagram account, but he says he gets "death threats all the time" because of the type of adult content he produces. Blacked, the first brand he launched, in March 2014, with an investment from PornTube.com founder Steve Matthyssen, has attracted scrutiny for its focus on interracial sex and its portrayals of white women being sexually dominated by well-endowed black men. "You get [criticism] from really racist people, and then you get it from really progressive people that feel you're perpetuating some stereotype, but in reality, the goal behind this is simply entertainment," says Lansky. "Having an interracial site, you can't win. Everyone hates you. [They think] you're a horrible person. It is what it is. The people I work with, of all genders and all races, they enjoy being part of it."

"We're like the witches of the world, and I think people are sick of it," says Lansky.

Having worked in the adult industry for more than a decade, Lansky's hate mail is about as constant as his Instagram likes. In fact, he's even taken steps to play up his polarizing image as the stereotypical porn producer, over-the-top Versace shirts and all. It's a strategy he's employed ever since winning his first AVN Award for Director of the Year in 2016. When he discovered his acceptance speech had been cut out of the telecast, he came back the next year with a glitzier suit and bigger sunglasses. This time, his speech made the cut. "You want me to play the shiny adult producer role? I can play that. It's fine. First of all, I love Versace shirts, and I shamelessly love them," says Lansky. "People didn't fucking notice me before. Now they do."

Lansky had no money, zero experience, and no idea how to hold a video camera when he directed his first porn film at the age of 21. What he did have was a vision, a lot of confidence – maybe too much confidence – and a few industry contacts from his stint interning on reality television shows in Europe, which he now calls a valuable lesson in "how to not be boring." 

It was 2004 and Lansky, a recent high school dropout with few plans for the future, had bumped into his childhood friend, Mike Adriano, on the street in Paris, where they both grew up. The two began reminiscing and soon realized that what they'd bonded over as 12-year-olds was still the thing they shared in common as adults: Their mutual love of porn. "To an extent, you say, 'Well, which teenager doesn't like the adult industry?' But we were really obsessed with it," says Lansky. "We didn't talk about it like, 'Oh the girls are super hot. We talked about it like, 'Oh, it would be so nice to produce those movies.'"

Maybe it was their serendipitous reunion, or maybe it was that Adriano's family had "like, tons of fucking money," Lansky says, but the duo — "It was like Dumb and Dumber," he jokes — figured it couldn't be too difficult to produce their own movie. Adriano borrowed several thousand dollars from his parents, in the guise of a real estate investment, and Lansky, meanwhile, made some calls, which eventually led him to the middle-aged German porn star Steve Holmes. Holmes agreed to shoot the scene with three women Lansky flew to Adriano's parents' mansion in Marbella, Spain while his parents were out of town. Or at least, that was the plan, but it didn't play out like that. "We shoot two or three scenes, and next thing you know, the mom and her sister show up early, and somehow they're like, you know, 'Who's that old dude in the house?'" Lansky says. "Somehow he walks up to the aunt and announces, 'Hey, nice to meet you.' He charms her and she's like, 'Oh, this guy's nice.' We're like, 'Oh, he works in the computer business.'"

"Steve doesn't know that the mom and the aunt don't know [he's a porn star]. They don't speak English, but they're like, 'Well, you seem to be very professional at what you do,'" Lansky says. "He's like, 'Yeah, I love what I do!' We're like, 'Okay, we need to go now.'" Lansky's debut turned out to be "a very mediocre movie," he admits now, reclining on a black armchair in his glass-walled office. The way he pitched it to producers during a German porn convention, it was "the best movie you'll ever see," but the producers weren't buying it. 

"The shots sucked," Lansky says. "The whole thing sucked. But we were like, 'Whatever, look at the passion!'" Eventually, he sweet-talked his way to Wolfgang Embacher, a German producer who at the time owned a studio called Erotic Planet. Embacher agreed to buy the film and Lansky made back the money that Adriano, now an established porn actor and director himself, borrowed from his parents to make it, plus a small profit. Lansky felt unstoppable. He'd just talked his way into selling his first porn film, despite having almost no experience in the industry, and he wanted more.

"The whole thing sucked," Lansky says of his first porn. "But we were like, 'Whatever, look at the passion!'" 

The convention proved to him that he could bounce back from rejection. It also introduced him to Scott Taylor, the founder of porn production company New Sensations. He made Lansky an offer: If he moved to L.A., Taylor would give him a budget and hire him as a director. Which is how, in 2005, Lansky, penniless and with no other industry contacts in Los Angeles, packed up and headed West to the porn capital of the world. "My entire life I move to L.A., over one promise," Lansky says now, laughing at the absurdity of the situation. But once in Los Angeles, reality started to sink in. When Lansky initially couldn't get a hold of Taylor, he panicked. "I was so petrified. I was living dollar to dollar. Literally I had no money," he says. "I had to plan my budget with noodles and whatever, the cheapest food possible."

Ultimately, Taylor came through on his end of the deal. Lansky spent a year honing his chops as a director for New Sensations before landing a job at the Miami-based porn website Reality Kings. To him, the company may as well have been "the Harvard business school of the adult industry." It gave him the foundation to form his own company, having worked his way to one of the top creative positions there. "They had a vision and they had the tech and they were making more money than anyone else combined in the adult industry. They were pioneers," Lansky says, referring to his tenure at the company as the most important time in his life. "There was very little competition, there was no piracy, it was insane. They were printing money."

But the "golden age of adult entertainment," as Lansky describes it, was short lived: Internet connections grew faster and the proliferation of tube sites that generated ad revenue from pirated porn videos meant there was no reason to pay for content anymore. The porn industry was crippled. In 2012, Reality Kings was sold to Fabian Thylmann, the German entrepreneur who started the massive porn company now known as MindGeek. Lansky felt blindsided. He left the company a year later. "At the time, the few people surviving had a very simple model. They thought, 'Well you know what? We're going to create the cheapest possible adult entertainment with the lowest possible cost,'" Lansky says, snapping his fingers to illustrate how quickly producers wanted to make their money back. "I'm coming in and I'm like, 'I want to do the opposite. I want to create a quality that's so superior, and attend to all these little details for customers."

Lansky's business plan relied on the premise that customers were still willing to pay for quality content through subscriptions, rather than pirate the cheap stuff for free. Investors brushed it off as overly idealistic, if not laughable. Lansky's friends and colleagues told him he was crazy, that there was no money left in Internet porn. His girlfriend, Jennifer, whom he met in 2010 and has been with since, convinced him otherwise. (He now refers to her as his wife, despite that the two haven't gotten around to getting married; she prefers to use his last name, citing safety concerns over death threats from critics of their pornography.) They were driving down Hollywood Boulevard one day when Lansky confessed to her that he was scared of creating a company that could fail. "She said, 'Everything you touch turns to gold. Look how much money you've made for [Reality Kings]. You'll be fine,'" Lansky recalls. "You know what? I was like, 'Fuck it. I'm going to do it.'"

I want to create a quality that's so superior," says Lansky. "And attend to all these little details for customers."

Today, Lansky surrounds himself with all things gold, from the glistening AVN trophies lining his shelves to the couch-turned-Instagram magnet in his foyer, to the padlocks on his Italian leather Buscemi high top sneakers. It's a reminder of his success, which he credits mostly to Jennifer. His company now includes four different brands – Blacked, Blacked Raw, Tushy and Vixen – and boasts roughly 75 employees worldwide. Its producers, designers, accountants, and lawyers are based in Los Angeles; web programmers and tech support in Barcelona, Spain; and marketing in Montreal, Canada (Operation costs are cheaper in the last two cities, where employment is less competitive). And though his company turns a profit, piracy is still a big problem. David Robertson, the co-founder of the copyright enforcement agency XTakedowns.com, estimates that six percent of all adult piracy — what he calls "a ridiculous number" considering there are thousands of content studios — is related to Vixen, Tushy, and Blacked. He says he's handled more than 12.6 million copyright infringements, or what he calls "an unfortunate compliment" for Lansky's content.

After the Instagram Live ceremony with Danger wraps up, Lansky and Jennifer – a former designer for Guess who now designs Vixen's sets and styles its photo shoots – spend the rest of the afternoon picking out clothes for Danger's photo shoot the following day, at a taco stand in South Los Angeles. While Danger vapes, Lansky fits her in a white wife beater ("It's kind of fucked up when you think about it. I wonder who came up with that?" he says of the name); sweat pants ("There's something cool about really loose pants with someone with such a great waist"); and hoop earrings ("They're so sexy"). The vibe he's laid out on his mood board? "A Nineties Los Angeles sort of thing," he says. He rarely has time to shoot his own Vixen Angels anymore, and he prefers to pass on the opportunities to up and coming photographers he scouts on Instagram. But he wasn't happy with the photographer he hired for the last shoot with Danger, so this time, he's doing the job himself. He's ditched the Versace shirt and aviator glasses in favor of a black Lululemon sweater, black stretchy pants and sneakers. Since he's not in front of the camera today, he doesn't need to play the role of the glitzy adult producer. Besides, he's already nailed the part.