A movie that largely flew under the radar is Netflix’s 2018 psychological thriller Cam, a story about a young woman going deep into the world of internet fame and money with increasingly self-destructive tactics before losing control of her identity.
Even more clever than the single best exploration of deepfakes in film to date alongside an impressive performance from the film’s star Madeline Brewster as cam-girl Alice, Cam smartly explores the world of online fame and fortune through sex work and how emerging A.I. technologies may impact our relationship and control over our lives and livelihood.
Alice is a college-aged woman producing camgirl content under the stage name Lola. Middle-aged men send her tips her to fulfill their requests on livestream. Alice’s single mother believes her daughter works in web development. Her younger brother, however, is aware of what his sister does but keeps it a secret. Lola takes calls from her most regular fans for money. She is obsessed with climbing the site’s ranked lists, aspiring to be the site’s number one cam girl.
In order to improve her ranking, she starts engaging in increasingly extreme acts. After faking her own suicide by slitting her throat on camera, her “fans” cheering her on, new viewers pour in, despite not knowing if the act was real.
This poignant scene echos sentiments expressed by many ex-porn stars after leaving the industry. Often on contract, young, impressionable, porn stars feel pressured and often outright coerced into accepting escalating abuse including being beaten, humiliated, and participating in very rough sex that is filmed and distributed.
Additionally, getting into the industry at a young age has tremendous implications on their future career prospects that they might not fully understand at 18 or 19 years of age, even if they don’t hit it big in porn.
The industry has a frighteningly high number of suicides and overdoses, even among performers who amass huge audiences such as August Ames (1994-2017) and Shyla Stylez (1982-2017).
Between November 2017–January 2018, a wave of deaths rocked the porn industry, all of whom were under the age of 40. Cam was released later that year, in the wake of the surge.
“It was just so shocking how much it’s affecting all these women, myself included all these years later,” says Jane Doe, a former sex trafficking victim whose abuse was filmed in pornographic material posted by GirlsDoPorn. “I feel like it’s going to be a lifelong battle. It’s something they put on the internet. It’s something they stole from us that will never go away.”
Jane says that she too has attempted suicide.
Two worlds collide
Back in the world of Cam, Alice finds that keeping her and Lola’s identities separated is not entirely within her control.
Finding herself locked out of her account, Alice is horrified to see that her alter ego Lola is somehow live-streaming in real time. Her rise in the ranks made her a target for account hackers who, after gaining control of her account, could collect her earnings from the audiences she had built by violating her own boundaries at viewers’ request.
Moreover, the hacker is using all her previous video footage to create new, indistinguishable Lola content. Deepfake Lola even performs her own version of Lola’s most well known act: She “commits suicide” on camera to the cheers of onlookers, this time by gunshot. Alice, watching her likeness shoot herself in the head, has a panic attack.
In addition to being locked out of the benefits of being Lola, the toll of being Lola ripples into Alice’s offline life.
While attending her brother’s birthday party, his friends sneer at him after discovering Lola’s content online. Alice’s mother finds out that Alice is not a web developer. Alice leaves the party ashamed and indignant.
It’s an experience many who have appeared in porn can relate to.
Jane Doe on her experience: “The film was sent to my parents. Within my religious community, my high school…everyone knew within a week. No one asked. No one said ‘are you ok?’ or ‘what happened?’ I just thought that if I killed myself, it would go away. I felt so stupid and naive.”
Additionally, Lola’s fans crossing over from online into Alice’s real life. One regular fan with whom she had regular calls begins appearing wherever she goes. Another, whom she agreed to go on a paid date with, attacks her believing he is entitled to have sex with her based on all the money he has paid Lola.
To hammer the point home, deepfake Lola begins live-streaming right as the attack on Alice begins, symbolizing the bleed-over of Lola and Alice’s worlds.
Cam‘s integration of deepfakes was prophetic
Alice’s loss of control over her image in Lola parallels how those in porn feel about seeing their image online long after their incidental earnings are gone
Though people continue to view the content and its legacy ripples in their lives, those most exposed from it no longer control their own image — unless they fight or pay to get rights over the content.
“Even though we own the rights to it now, it’ll always be out there,” Jane Doe says. “It’s something I’m having to learn to live with. It gets reposted every week, and I don’t know that it’ll ever fully go away.”
Cam takes this concept one step further with the integration deepfakes making new content out of past inventory. Through the use of this technology, the subject can be generated to do anything without permission from the person whose image is being manipulated or whose artwork is being sourced — an issue finding its way into courts now, five years later, with the rise of A.I. “art.”
In that way, Cam is turning out not only to be penetrative social commentary, but downright prophetic.
The rise of A.I.-generated art has raised concerns about whether A.I.-software should be allowed to scan existing content inventory in order to generate new content, just as Alice/Lola’s past content was being sourced to create deepfake Lola content – locking Alice out of profit and revenue of her own alter ego. Likewise, artists are concerned that their work will be used to inform algorithms in the creation of new art, disrupting their livelihoods.
Cam‘s ending speaks to disrupting the algorithm that creates A.I.-generated content, or deepfake Lola. In the film, by challenging her A.I.-generated self to a dual, and strategically placing mirrors so that there are hundreds of Lolas within one frame. In doing so, she is throwing a wrench into the mix and causing the software to glitch. Through this tactic, she is able to win the stand off with her deepfake, acquire the password, and delete Lola for good.
Despite some of the themes, Cam is not a condemnation of camgirls or porn.
If anything, it’s a suggestion on how to fix it. Alice has to reclaim her image by destroying the one that had been taken from her, and start over as someone new.
This aligns with Cam‘s writer Isa Mazzeri’s stance that porn should not be available for free. Cam at its heart is a quest to reclaim all aspects of identity.
By being shut out from the monetization of her image and unable to stop the production of new content using her likeness — a problem that is just now becoming a mainstream conversation among artists and writers whose work is being sourced to generate A.I. content — Alice is able to reclaim her life, her work, and her identity.
It does raise the question: Would this film have made a bigger splash if the lead had not been a camgirl, cheered on to commit suicide on camera for sexual entertainment?
Would people have better understood Cam‘s profound message and exploration of A.I. technology if the plot had centered around a family man whose reputation degraded because deepfake content was making rounds online were damaging to his career and livelihood?
If so, deepfakes are hardly the only societal problem Cam brings into the neon light.