After police shut down the Coon Rapids swingers club Bobby’s World in July, a 13-year-old boy told the Star Tribune that a relative of the middle-aged owners was known to give free sodas to neighborhood kids while replenishing the wet bar. Just goes to show you that sex fiends are people, too. That’s also the message of The Lifestyle, a documentary exposé of suburban “sport-fucking” that opens with a shot of the American flag and closes with one swingin’ geezer’s Clintonian joke that he may have sniffed Monica L. at a wild bash, but he didn’t inhale. Seems both “the lifestyle” and The Lifestyle are as American as apple pie. Saluting the swinger’s right to consume his neighbor like any other commercial product, the film gives its audience the libertarian hard sell under the guise of…um, broadening our horizons. No wonder one aging butt-plug salesman, completing his pitch at the annual Lifestyles Convention in Las Vegas, is shown to exclaim, sans irony, “God bless America!”
As much as The Patriot, The Lifestyle is a movie about freedom. Turning each of their indistinguishable suburban ramblers into one huge mattress, the bed-hopping couples profiled here–all of them middle class, and most of them old and preppy enough to resemble Ron and Nancy during their last year in the White House–appear proud to be finally flipping the bird to the 1950s. The kids are all out of the house, thank God, and so, before the nursing home comes calling, they’re gonna party like there’s no tomorrow. Favoring the participants’ spirited descriptions of recreational coitus over images of same, The Lifestyle includes brief snippets of group-sex shenanigans in Orange County, New Orleans, and Littleton, Colorado. (Some research conducted in Minneapolis evidently failed to make the final cut.) It’s said that every state except North Dakota contains at least one swingers club, but, alas, that last fact can only be found in the film’s press kit; in trade for the trust of his camera-shy subjects, first-time director David Schisgall promised to use only those words spoken by swingers themselves. (Schisgall and his crew also agreed to be naked during the filming, but it’s hard to imagine how that could have helped anyone.)
In other words, The Lifestyle is a film without apparent judgment of its swingers, but also without context. Schisgall spent three years in and around his subjects’ padded playpens and rec-room lounges, and the movie bears out that dank claustrophobia, stuck as it is with the same old talking heads spouting off about their civil liberties in the same tastelessly decorated suburban Edens. At a certain point, all the spinning disco balls and elaborate humping harnesses in the world would fail to elucidate the milieu. Hell, even Wild Kingdom–which The Lifestyle resembles rather too closely–provides voiceover commentary to explain exactly why those animals are mounting each other from behind. Funny that the one time Schisgall breaks his swingers-only rule is to show a brief clip from a nature doc about bonobos, a free-loving breed of pacifist chimpanzees that favor group sex and mating in every conceivable position. And there, by default, is the larger context of The Lifestyle: the suburban jungle as planet of the apes.
Try as he might, Schisgall can’t completely resist editorializing on his omnivores: One extreme close-up of intermingling bodies is indistinguishable from what you’d see in the State Fair swine barn, while tongue-in-cheek cuts between cunnilingus action and a bountiful buffet table hardly make either seem tasty. Still, in deference to its unpaid ensemble cast, The Lifestyle is primarily concerned with showing how normal these conservative radicals are. One 73-year-old swinger in a red plaid shirt explains that his clique stopped using the term “gang-bang” on account of “those black bastards up in L.A.” (This film is clearly the whitebread flip side of American Pimp.) The president of the national Lifestyles Organization is also, believe it or not, a minister. Everyone in the lifestyle uses condoms: No HIV here–that’s for less savory types. After singing the praises of sapphic love in the lifestyle, one elderly female swinger reports, “We have no bisexual men in our group. If one ever did get in our group, [he] would be asked to leave. Because that’s just not our thing.”
Equally insular in its worldview, The Lifestyle mainly succeeds in making sex seem as erotic as a Tupperware party. Still, an interesting experiment in context expansion would be to screen its reels interchangeably with those of another recent doc, Wonderland, which conducts a more expansive study of the suburban lifestyle through a look at the nation’s first “planned community” in Levittown, New York. Wouldn’t Wonderland‘s Fifties-era nuclear-shelter demonstrations make ideal bedmates with The Lifestyle‘s scenes of old wife-swappers readying their own basements for the big one? As it is, Schisgall’s movie leaves its naked subjects stripped bare. One lifestyler straining to convey the depth of her freedom muses, “You start to realize that you’re realizing something.” Uh-huh. Tempting as it is to mock these geriatric sport-fuckers, The Lifestyle takes all the sport out of it.