‘Rich and Shameless’ Reveals the Kardashians’ Deep Ties to Predatory ‘Girls Gone Wild’ Founder Joe Francis

Joe Francis embodied all that was crass, gross and offensive about the early 2000s, and Rich & Shameless: Girls Gone Wild Exposed—the first installment of TNT’s new pop-culture docuseries—only reaffirms that impression. A two-hour event premiering on Saturday, April 23, it’s a blunt-instrument exposition about the founder and impresario of Girls Gone Wild, the once-ubiquitous DVD franchise predicated on footage of random inebriated girls at nightclubs and beaches taking their tops off for the cameras. Low-class? Definitely. Exploitative? Inarguably. And yet even in light of Girls Gone Wild‘s deservedly horrible reputation, director/producer Katinka Blackford Newman’s non-fiction inquiry reveals the true seediness of the enterprise, which—likely to the astonishment of no one—was apparently run by a man who had no qualms about manipulating, abusing, and sexually assaulting the women off whom he profited.

The biggest bombshell delivered by Rich & Shameless: Girls Gone Wild Exposed comes from a Chicago native named Jannel, who as a self-described 18-year-old “party girl” visited a favorite nightclub that was also playing host to Francis and his colleagues. Charmed by the celebrity businessman into downing drinks, Jannel soon found herself agreeing to return to his bus, where in the back room she drunkenly signed a waiver and then was pressured into pleasuring herself on-camera with sex toys. According to Jannel, what followed was a nightmare: “I didn’t give my consent that night and he totally raped me. And then he got off of me like I was garbage.”

Jannel’s accusation was supposedly brushed off by police at the time, and Francis later denied having behaved improperly with her. Nevertheless, Rich & Shameless: Girls Gone Wild Exposed casts this attack as merely one of many examples of Francis’ horridness. Director Newman opens her two-hour investigation with an Aug. 1, 2020, audio recording made by Francis’ current girlfriend (and mother of his two daughters) Abbey Wilson, during which he screams, “Fuck you, you selfish cunt!” and “I hope you fucking die!” while she cries out “You’re hurting me, Joe… You’re killing me!” and “You stepped on my fucking head, you stepped on my neck, you fucking choked me!” In light of such material, Entertainment Weekly journalist Joel Stein’s subsequent remark about Francis—“His attitude toward women is complicated”—reeks of laughable understatement.

Rich & Shameless: Girls Gone Wild Exposed doesn’t succeed in landing an interview with Francis; a series of emails between the subject and production indicate that he balked after being denied control over what made the final cut. Nevertheless, if his absence is somewhat missed—if only for entertainment’s sake, to hear him lamely try to refute the notion that he was a sleazy softcore huckster and predator—director Newman speaks to a variety of individuals close to him, including SVP of Operations Lori King, cameraman David, editor Scott Sobel and Stein (who profiled him for QG), all of whom paint a predictable picture of Francis as an arrogant entrepreneur who believed he was above reproach, and who was enthusiastic about promoting an image of women as horny “sluts” who would take off their tops (if not engage in pornographic acts ) if you simply asked.

Francis was at the forefront of an early 2000s culture that revealed in overt female sexualization, be it the explosion of magazines like Max and FHM or the popularity of E!’s Wild On! travel series, which is weakly defended here by host Brooke Burke as a tamer version of what Francis was peddling (naturally, he appeared on the show, and Girls Gone Wild commercials ran constantly during its episodes). Rich & Shameless: Girls Gone Wild Exposed positions Francis as the man who reminded millennials that smutty sex sells, and moreover, that it was a prime (and legitimate) means of achieving fame and fortune. No surprise, then, that he dated Kourtney Kardashian, and that her sister Kim—whose own notoriety began with a sex tape that the doc argues was maybe released by Francis—was also a close friend who, in one clip, wears a “Free Joe” T-shirt (a reference to one of his many stints behind bars) and proclaims, “I’m a Joe supporter.”

No surprise, then, that he dated Kourtney Kardashian, and that her sister Kim—whose own notoriety began with a sex tape that the doc argues was maybe released by Francis—was also a close friend who, in one clip, wears a “Free Joe” T-shirt (a reference to one of his many stints behind bars) and proclaims, “I’m a Joe supporter.”

Archival news and talk-show snippets underscore how the media gleefully validated and celebrated Francis for his lewd trade, and to be sure, Rich & Shameless: Girls Gone Wild Exposed often leans too heavily on tawdry footage of the very females whom it contends were mistreated. That said, it also provides a venue for multiple Francis victims to explain his underhanded tactics, and to express their hurt and anger over being featured in videos—if not plastered on their packaging—without having been first given a clear understanding of what they were signing up for. Such practices were part and parcel of Francis’ operation, and there’s only minor self-reflection from his colleagues about their decision to participate in this venture despite understanding that what was happening was tasteless at best, and ugly at worst. That was especially apparent in 2003, when Panama City Beach mayor Lee Sullivan set his sights on Francis for his nasty misconduct, which resulted in a litany of charges that included child pornography and prostitution.

There’s a collection of similar arrests and indictments detailed in Rich & Shameless: Girls Gone Wild Exposed, from the IRS putting him behind bars for 11 months for tax evasion, to a 2009 Los Angeles bar incident in which security cameras caught Francis beating up a young woman who’d poured a drink on him. Numerous speakers agree that Francis has a habit of being scarily physical with women, and Newman even reveals that his own parents have taken out restraining orders against him, so fearful are they of his volatility. The fact that he’s fled prosecution and is currently residing at his estate in Punta Mita, Mexico, means that there’s no definitive conclusion to this saga. It does, however, seem to confirm the accuracy of this portrait of Francis as a cagey criminal convinced that he’s protected by his wealth and successful friends—the latter of whom (including a honeymooning Kim and Kanye) reportedly continues to visit him south of the border.

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