Jonathan Agassi Was King of the Porn World, Until... Inside Doc Filmmaker's Tomer Heymann's Provocative Film

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday May 22, 2022
Originally published on May 10, 2022

Israeli doc filmmaker Tomer Heymann first took note of adult male star Jonathan Agassi not through one of the Hustlaball award winner's movies, but rather through a chance encounter: Heymann had gone for a drink one evening and saw a handsome, confident young man jumping over the bar to kiss a bartender. That man was Jonathan Agassi.

By that point in time, Agassi had rocketed to global fame in a series of films from Lucas Entertainment, but Heymann had no idea of who he was. "I had some jealousy about him breaking the rules or doing whatever he pleased," Heymann says about the incident. And was "half jealous and half curious" about someone with the sexual swagger and joyous abandon who could pull that sort of thing off.

As fate would have it, Heymann was to run across Agassi a year or so later, while shooting footage of the Pride parade in Tel Aviv. When he asked a friend about the handsome man, the friend was surprised he didn't know of him. "He was, 'Hey, don't pretend, Tomer, you know who it is. It's Jonathan Agassi. He's a really big porn star! I don't believe that you never saw any movie of him.'" Heymann, who didn't watch porn, didn't know who Agassi was, but he pursued an introduction.

But when he reached out to Agassi, there was a bit of confusion. The adult performer also worked as an escort and thought that was why the meeting was requested.

"He was almost naked," Heymann recalls of Agassi opening the door on that first meeting. "Maybe he had a small towel covering his [privates]. We shook hands, and immediately he started to ask me what I wanted. What kind of fantasy did I have? How was I going to pay him —†in dollars, in Euros, with shekels? It took me a moment to understand, hey, something's not right!"

From that meeting, the two became friends, then collaborators, and Heymann came to film Agassi over the next eight years. Literally: Everything from his explicit onstage performances, his intimate family life, his hard-core drug use, and the way his life and career began to nosedive as the quest for validation of his success eventually gave way to exhaustion.

Agassi became a star after "Men of Israel," a film he made for director Michael Lucas that was the first adult male film made in the country, and featured a cast of Jewish men. Lucas later said it was the film he was most proud of and, in 2013, was his company's most successful film.

As they began to film, Jonathan, Heymann says, drew him in. And together we went to places they didn't think they would go — "very deep and interesting places."

No kidding. The film opens with Agassi backstage, chatting amiably with a fellow performer while fluffing himself in preparation for a live sex show. A few minutes later the two are on stage, and Heymann's camera, while not showing anything too explicit, also doesn't leave a whole lot to the imagination.

At the height of his fame, Agassi was praised as someone who knew instinctively how to play to the camera and to the audience. He brought the same comfort level with sexual situations to the documentary —†that is, while he was operating from the idea that the doc would be about little more than his appeal as a purveyor of sexual fantasy.

"Jonathan originally came into this thinking that this was going to be some sort of propaganda picture about him, where he can get away with anything he wants," Heymann explains. "And Jonathan at the time was really at his peak.

"He felt like he could get away with anything, and he thought all of that would come into the film as well — his experiences, his life, with him being on top. That would be the way [he was] portrayed in the film."

What Agassi didn't expect, and was less enthusiastic about at first, was having his troubled childhood discussed. He recalls being bullied as boy and raised by a single mother after his father abandoned the family. When he visited him at the age of 12, Agassis was put in an uncomfortable situation: His father set him up to have sex with his girlfriend. When the boy failed to perform, his father called him a gay slur, which haunted him and set up one of the film's central conflicts — how Agassi's childhood was sabotaging his adulthood.

These personal demons, and a career in the highly competitive gay adult entertainment industry, led to Agassi's drug use. When they first started filming, there were none, Heymann recalls; nor was there was much interesting footage. "He was way more reserved about his faults," the director recalls. And after a year of filming, Heymann felt all he had was "this non-interesting 15-minute film."

But as time passed, Agassi began to let the film director more and more into his life, including his drug use, which is dropped in casually about midway through. "Originally we had this unwritten agreement that Jonathan's use of drugs wouldn't appear in the film so much; he would do it in private," Heymann remembers.

But things changed. "At some point Jonathan said, 'If you want to make this film, we have to we have to show this side. We have to start revealing it.'" At this point, Agassi started using drugs in front of the camera. This led to moments where Heymann "witnessed of dozens of scenes where Jonathan was using hard drugs, and being severely affected by them."

The drug use in the film is disturbing with a number of scenes of Jonathan in the throes of a reaction to methamphetamine, his drug of choice. As hard-hitting as the film can be, the director cautions that he "softens" some of the footage and doesn't give "the audience the full extent of how difficult and bad it really was."

But what we see is disturbing enough: Scenes of Agassi staggering up the street, collapsing onto the hood of a parked car, needing Heymann to help him up and get going again. At another moment, in Agassi's apartment, the porn star is so high he's unable to function and Heymann worries aloud about whether Agassi is still breathing. Typically a documentary filmmaker is there to observe, not intercede as he does onscreen.

Heymann's brief, but crucial, appearances show the level of trust that he earner from his subject. As Heymann notes, "Some of interesting deep places the film was able to get were obtained through a relationship that was built over eight years of filming and a deep trust and commitment to each other."

And the director found himself more and more involved in Agassi's life, especially after his adult male career went south. "I took [care of] Jonathan," Heymann says. "I bought him the coffee, I paid for the ticket for him going back to his mom, I cleaned the apartment, I paid for the bills, and I've been there so many times."

When he showed his subject footage of him under the influence, Agassi was shocked. But he agreed to allow it be used in the film. "Leave it here, it's fine for me," he told Heymann.

Still, would it be fine with the audience? Heymann wrestled with the question of how much the film should, or could, show; but in the end, "Jonathan himself was the one who defined the boundaries of what he was okay with showing, and what he preferred to keep to himself."

Again, Agassi pushed for disclosure. "He told me, 'Thomas, if you take out these scenes about the drugs, I don't want to publish this movie. If you only show only the other side of me, I don't want this movie [to be released]."

Heymann's editors —†one a man, the other a woman, both straight — agreed. "We felt it might be really hypocritical [not to show these things]," Heymann tells EDGE.

"From my point of view, doing a film about a big porn star [means showing him] doing G, doing Tina, and more and more," Heymann adds. As for his star, "Jonathan accepted that he would pay a certain price for revealing that side on screen."

The film's arc suggests that Agassis's drug use is tied to his childhood issues, which the actor was reluctant to expose at first. "It was more of the intimate family areas, the relationship with his father and his family, that Jonathan didn't want me to enter into," Heymann details. "But when Jonathan came to the decision to discuss something, he would go into it with all of his force. For example, about the incident with the girlfriend of the father; once Jonathan started talking about it, he couldn't stop. He had to go through the whole entire issue without any boundaries, and explain it to the fullest extent."

And it is not surprising that Agassi's relationship with his father is where the rawest, deepest pain rests. Eventually, Heymann recorded an evening when father and son got together to talk about difficult family history. Initially, you expect a catharsis —†an emotional release that allows Agassi to lift himself out of the cycle of need and suffering that underlies his drug use. But that's not what happens; instead, after hearing his father's version of events (and his mother's subsequent refutation), Agassi sinks even deeper into drug use, and his career, already unraveling, starts going further off the tracks. Heymann's camera seems set to document his ultimate undoing, and it's hard not to fear for Agassi's life.

Here too, though, Agassi was the one to push for more disclosure, Heymann relates. "'Tomer, you have to show the mechanism and the weight of the porn industry, and the behind the scenes,' " Heymann quotes Agassi telling him, "and he really dragged me into those dark and intimate places."

Eventually, the film's title starts to take on new meaning. Early on he exclaims that his life as a successful porn star is a great gift and that Jonathan Agassi (his stage name) is a creation intended to present an idealized version of himself, not the bullied, young man trying to escape his traumatic origins. But as the film peels away the layers of illusion, it reveals Agassi succumbing to his demons and becoming a shadow of the confident man at the film's start.

"That's definitely true," Heymann affirms. "There was a screening a few days ago, and these are exactly the issues Jonathan was talking about at the Q and A: How once he saw himself in the film, Jonathan deeply understood the changes that he had to make if he wanted to stay alive. That was a very, very difficult process for him. But in a way, I guess the film, and viewing himself, ultimately maybe did save his life."

Now clean and healthy — and pursuing a very different line of work as the manager of a grocery store — Agassi feels he's on a more promising path... most of the time.

"Each time he views the film, he gets this reassurance of the new life that he's chosen, and reminds himself that these are the bad traits that he had to leave behind, to continue being alive," Heymann says.

But there are moments when the glamour of that life still calls to him.

"Ten days ago, in the middle of the night, he calls me and says, 'Can you send me the link to the movie?' " Heymann recounts. "I said, 'Jonathan, but you saw the movie.' 'No, no, no, Tomer, I need to see the movie!'

"The day after asking to send him the link, I asked him, 'What was so important to you to at midnight that you had to see the movie?' " Heymann continues. Jonathan's answer: " 'Tomer, sometimes I need to see the movie to help me to remember where I want to take my life.' "

"Wow, all the time my ego was so inflated." Heymann recalls Agassi as saying when he saw the film. And that during his adult male career he was trying "to buy fame, to buy hearts, to buy love.

"And now what is amazing is to see Jonathan in a completely different spot in his life."

"Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life" opens in a re-edited version in New York on May 13, and in Los Angeles on May 20. Other cities to follow.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.