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Latest reality-show uproar: 'Bumfights'

By Steve FriessSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2002


One homeless man, his pants sliding off his back end, pummels a foe into the corner of a public toilet. Another rips his front tooth out with pliers. A third bashes open a candy machine with a sledgehammer.

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That's entertainment? For thousands of people who have forked out at least $22 each for a copy of "Bumfights: A Cause for Concern," apparently so.

The hour-long flick, which through violence and gore depicts the worst imaginable behavior of homeless people in Las Vegas and southern California, has sold more than 250,000 copies since its April debut. It's also turned its producers into millionaires.

Homeless advocates, pop-culture observers, and conservative media groups are all appalled. Howard Stern and Fox News are both fascinated. And the Las Vegas police are actively looking for victims of violence depicted in the video who would be willing to file complaints – even though some of the film's sequences were staged.

In one sense, "Bumfights" is merely the latest installment in a lineage stretching back to ancient Roman gladiators and leading more recently to Tonya Harding slugging Paula Jones on Fox. But this video takes the coarsening of US society a step beyond enterprises like "Fear Factor" or "Temptation Island." Many cultural observers believe it takes advantage of some of America's most vulnerable people in a way that is degrading if not dangerous – and crosses a new threshold in defining what's entertainment.

That's led many homeless advocates and media experts to accuse "Bumfights" of an exploitation that strips away dignity in a way reality TV hasn't done – at least not yet.

"This is no different than all the people who went to PT Barnum's circuses to see the freak show, only now you can order it up in private off the Internet and don't have to wait for PT Barnum to come to town," says Lenny Steinhorn, a communications professor and pop-culture expert at American University in Washington. "We have this curious side of us for things that are different, things that go wrong, things that are bizarre."

Indeed, Internet users, some from as far away as Australia or Turkey, are logging onto the "Bumfights" website to buy a copy of the film – and picking up a T-shirt or hooded sweatshirt while they're at it. The video is available only online.

Ray Leticia and Ty Beeson, preschool pals who say they financed the $20,000 film on their credit cards, hatched the idea after witnessing some homeless men fighting in a run-down section of Vegas known as Naked City. "We realized that everybody watching was having a pretty good time, so we figured, 'Why not make a whole video of this?' " Mr. Leticia recalls. "We were interested in the inherent humor of something that hasn't been touched upon in mainstream entertainment, which is homelessness."

Their aim was to raise $100,000 off "Bumfights" to fund a legitimate independent film career. Another goal, they claimed later after the criticism began, was to prod the public into recognizing how dehumanized homeless people feel.