In a buoyant early scene early in Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life, the documentary's titular subject, clad in leather pants and a gladiator helmet, takes the stage at HustlaBall Berlin to accept one of the gay porn industry's highest honors in front of a cheering crowd. Afterward, he texts his mother, "Mom, I'm the best actor in the porn world."
The high doesn't last. The camera returns to the HustlaBall another year to capture the reality of how some of the world's most beautiful men project an illusion. Dozens of muscled bodies crowd in a back room, injecting each other's penises with stimulants to stay hard. Agassi, crouched in a corner, smokes a pipe of crystal meth.
"Every time I watch this scene, I get scents of mold in my nose, because it was so dirty," Agassi shares in the present day. "The way that I remembered it, it was completely different. So this is what the movie does to me. It shows me how things really were."
Lifting the curtain for Agassi (and audience members) is precisely what happens in Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life, a documentary that follows the Israeli figure as he launches to international fame with the release of Michael Lucas's Men of Israel before becoming entangled in a dark underbelly of sex work and drug addiction. The lens captures the highs of his stardom -- admirers yelling his name on the street, glamorous locales for filming -- as well as his lows. In one searing scene following drug use, Agassi collapses on top of a car in broad daylight.
This was not the story Agassi believed he would be telling when he agreed to make a documentary with director Tomer Heymann nearly a decade ago. "I wanted a very happy story about a guy from Israel that becomes this big, huge porn star that makes a lot of money and travels," he shares. But as Agassi puts it, "What can you do? Life came along, and everything went to shit."
While Agassi was initially hesitant to show the darkness that swirled behind his porn-star fame, he eventually became resolved "not to hide anything" because, he says, "I think this film can give a lot of motivation and inspiration to people who [are] in this kind of place...and to know if maybe things can be different."
The most moving scenes from the documentary involve Agassi's mother and the pair's tight bond. Humorous exchanges see his mom providing commentary on her son's risque ensembles and film performances. Initially, Agassi had reservations about his mother's involvement. "I didn't want my mom to be in the film," he asserts, adding, "I wanted the whole focus to be on me. And to be honest, when the film came out and everybody was so excited about my mom, I was kind of jealous." But then he came to understand that the documentary is "not about a porn star...it's mostly a film about relationships. And it's a film about support."
The director, Heymann, highlighted how this special bond has emerged as a possibility model for families struggling with acceptance of LGBTQ+ members. Throughout Agassi's youth (when he was bullied for not being masculine), porn years, and recovery, his mother remained dedicated to her gay child. But prior to filming, Agassi never "understood the deep relationship between him and mom, that she offered a new model for what is a mother," says Heymann, who summarized her message: "I don't close the door for you. I keep the door open for you, my son."
This story has real-world impact. Heymann recounts how at a New York screening, a man in his 60s approached him and expressed his determination to reconnect with his estranged son. Here was a parent who decided "to have the healing process with his son, because he discovered something through Jonathan," Heymann marvels.
And many LGBTQ+ people relate to Jonathan's struggles with addiction. "I got so many messages from people that told me that suddenly, they saw it like a mirror...and they decided to quit.... They saw that it's possible," says Agassi, who encourages anyone dealing with substance abuse to confront this mirror and seek out support.
The film perhaps saved Agassi's own life. Watching himself on camera in his darkest hours became a wake-up call. Initially, Agassi couldn't believe the brutal footage of himself was real. Heymann shares, "It was a process of Jonathan [needing] to discover himself."
"I don't think that I would be where I am now, clean, sober, working, having a nice house, having a cute dog...if there wasn't the film," Agassi attests.
Agassi once believed he would never live to see the film premiere. "I was sure that I wouldn't get to 30," he says. And that he is now alive and sharing his story with the world? That, he says, is "a happy ending."
Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life opens May 13 in New York and May 20 in Los Angeles.
This story is part of The Advocate's 2022 Champions of Pride issue, which is out on newsstands May 17, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.