Early in the first episode of The Girlfriend Experience, Christine (Riley Keough) briefly describes how to please prospective clients and benefactors. “You just say their own words back to them,” she tells a friend, flatly. “It’s what they want.”
In that moment, she’s attending a job fair at her law school, and explaining why she’s spent so much time memorizing obscure medical-product jargon (so she can recite it to the recruiters looking for interns and persuade them how passionate she is about their painfully boring work). But the statement could just as easily apply to Christine’s philosophy regarding another job she’s mulling by the end of the episode: high-class escort. Ostensibly, The Girlfriend Experience (named for the customized, extremely expensive service Christine provides) is a show about a young woman pursuing a career path in the highest echelons of sex work, but really it’s an examination of the human desire for power, which looks remarkably similar as it manifests in boardrooms and bedrooms throughout the series.
The show is executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, and based on his 2009 indie film of the same name, which notably starred the adult-film actress Sasha Grey in the role of Christine. That movie, set in New York as the financial crisis of 2008 was beginning to percolate, was fixated on money, and used Grey’s character (also named Christine, and also known to her clients as “Chelsea”) as a lens through which to consider the pursuit of wealth. The TV series shares much of the movie’s sense of anxiety, as well as an aesthetic obsession with the trappings of the very rich, rendered in sterile, glossy high definition (there are scenes upon scenes of hotel suites and expense-account restaurants, filtered in Soderberghian blues and grays). But its primary currency is distinct. Keough’s Chelsea, struggling with debt at the beginning of the series, certainly profits from her new career, but the fulfillment it gives her seems to be harder to quantify.