What do you do with a woman who boldly declares that she's a whore? If you're Cameron Yates, you follow her around for years and discover that she has a fascinating, funny, troubling story to tell. And you end up with The Canal Street Madam, a documentary that had its world premiere at SXSW. The film navigates gracefully through shifting emotional currents, blurring the lines between issues and people to allow the outspoken, occasionally contradictory Jeanette Maier to speak her mind about life as an infamous -- or famous, she can't quite decide -- prostitute and business owner.
Maier became known as "The Canal Street Madam" after she was arrested by the FBI for running a house of prostitution in New Orleans. What set her story apart in the national consciousness was the revelation that Maier, her mother, and her daughter were all involved in the business. Three generations of prostitutes made for a great news story, and Maier was able to parlay that publicity into a made for TV movie starring Annabella Sciorra as herself and Ellen Burstyn as her mother. But Maier was convicted of a felony, and so comes to realize that her options have become more limited for the next stage of her life.
Not that she seems to have had many options before she became a prostitute. She was sexually abused at a young age by a close relative, eventually drifting into dancing in strip clubs and then following her mother into the prostitution business. Her first trick was easy money, she recalls: $200 plus a $200 tip for an hour's work; she felt good about it.