The title of this documentary about the making of the mid-90s exploitation picture “Kids” is a rebuke to the way that movie was perceived when it came out, as a truthful portrait of a lost generation devoted to sex and drugs. The survivors of that experience who are interviewed in “The Kids” make it clear that what got on the screen was actually the fantasy of the aggressive and manipulative Larry Clark, who was deep into middle age when he began hanging out with very young skaters around Washington Square Park more than 25 years ago.
The dominant interview subject in “The Kids” is Hamilton Harris, who has a co-writing credit on this movie. In Clark’s “Kids,” Harris is seen unrolling a cigar paper and putting marijuana inside of it, and he says here that he was perplexed after getting the script by Harmony Korine and seeing that his character was named after himself, which was supposed to aid the “this is all real” angle of that movie.
Harris is a vivid and dramatic speaker, and so he guides most of “The Kids” from the beginning as a narrative voice telling us about the world he grew up in, a world of poverty that he says was not only material but also psychological and emotional. He speaks of the first time he saw the very physically striking and commanding Harold Hunter, and of the bond they had. Drugs were everywhere in this environment, but Harris emphasizes a moment he had with Hunter where his friend tried to ward him off getting into heavier drugs than weed.
Hunter was a kind of leader of the kids, and another leader was Justin Pierce, who was protective of others, larger-than-life, and also very physically striking. Director Eddie Martin makes use of copious film footage taken of the young people as they partied and looked out for each other, and this footage paints a very different portrait from the one that wound up in Clark’s film.
The kids were skeptical of Clark from the start: “Who’s that old guy?” asks one of them in footage of the skaters around Washington Square. Clark was interested only in what kinds of drugs the kids did and in their sexual lives. “Are they having sex all the time?” he asked, not because Clark wanted an actual answer to that question, but because he wanted it to be true. There are not many charitable ways to view what Clark did to get “Kids” on film. He knew that sex would help to sell his movie, of course, and so his prurience was partly commercial, but it seems more than likely that there was a personal interest as well.
Hunter brought Korine into the circle and vouched for him, and that was enough for most of the kids, but according to Highlyann Krasnow, the young writer was not in full control of what he was doing. When Krasnow read the script of “Kids,” she was offended by the overly sexualized portrayal of their culture and by the way the girls in the group were minimized, but Korine told her that he was writing this for Clark.
The real-life kids were neither sheltered nor naïve. They knew that Clark was sketchy, and they were wised-up enough to know that any attention he gave them could result in opportunities for escape from their milieu. But once “Kids” became a big financial success, some of them were resentful about having accepted thousand-dollar paydays, and the grossness of this exploitation is made even worse when we see that the film was released by the despicable Weinstein brothers, aiding their rise to prominence.
Clark and Korine declined to participate in this film, and cast members Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson are only seen smiling on red carpets, for all four of them were interlopers in this world and soon moved on from it. Pierce and Hunter went out to LA and tried to make it as actors, but personal demons eventually got the better of them. Krasnow outright says in “The Kids” that she thinks Pierce would not have hanged himself in 2000 if the movie “Kids” had not happened.
It could be said that “The Kids” is also in the vein of exploitation in the old “where are they now?” genre, but the difference is that the subjects of Clark’s movie are finally speaking for themselves, and they are no longer at the service of a few prodigiously sleazy outside creative figures.
“The Kids” makes its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.