This year marks three decades since Robert Maxwell fell naked to his death from the deck of his yacht, The Lady Ghislaine. Power: The Maxwells is the latest contribution to the never-ending autopsy of Maxwell’s character and the circumstances of his death. It follows a now well-established formula, juxtaposing the lives of Ghislaine and her father, marvelling at how against seemingly unbeatable odds she can have managed to disgrace the good name of Maxwell, and throwing in the occasional Trump soundbite as a garnish of relevance.
The Maxwell family iconography is simply irresistible — she, the ‘international party girl’, ‘friends with princes and presidents’, now languishing ‘in a Brooklyn jail awaiting trial’; he, the Bouncing Czech, self-made millionaire tycoon, member of parliament, as-yet still-unconfirmed Israeli spy, as-yet still-confirmed horrific bastard. Power treats us to the familiar grotesque revelations of Maxwell’s life — his unconquerable urge to humiliate and control people, and his various scatological impulses, his habit of wiping his arse on laundered hand towels or urinating out of helicopters.
The podcast benefits from a streak of unselfconscious American tastelessness, finely displayed in the straight-faced use of a ‘splash’ sound effect in an early episode about Maxwell’s death by drowning. It also helpfully reminds us of some events well worth remembering: Maxwell’s plan to slander Ian Hislop as ‘a well-known homosexual who picked up young men’, and the later successful raid perpetrated by Peter Cook on the Mirror building following Maxwell’s attempt to bankrupt Private Eye. The small price the listener pays for these fond reminiscences takes the form of the inevitable and continual line of reflection — pitched at a rather remedial level — as to whether it might not have been a terribly good thing for Ghislaine, or indeed any child, to be raised by someone as monstrous as Robert Maxwell.
The wellness industry certainly brings out the worst in people. Throughout the 2010s, OneTaste — the Californian start-up that is the focus of BBC Radio 4’s The Orgasm Cult — tapped this $4.2 trillion global market, peddling a wacko ideology of self-care-cum-sexual-empowerment that not even Gwyneth Paltrow could hold a candle to.
As its CEO Nicole Daedone explains in a wide-eyed TEDx talk delivered in 2011, OneTaste proposes that a female masturbatory practice known as ‘orgasmic meditation’, or ‘OMing’, has the power to ‘change the world’. OMing, it turns out, is a ritualised sex act marketed as a female-centred mindfulness technique: a woman, recumbent and undressed, allows her partner to shine a light up her crotch (‘the noticing stage’); this is followed by a 15-minute uninterrupted ‘stroking’ regime, carried out against the clock.
Well, you may think, different strokes for different folks. Or, as in this case, a closely prescribed set of exactly the same strokes for different folks. For years, OneTaste was puffed in women’s glossies, had outposts across the UK and America, and earned million-dollar revenues. The business model was admirably straightforward. OneTaste’s introductory class involved a ‘room full of women with their pants off’ learning to OM under the close supervision of coaches. Annual membership was a reassuring $60k, while customers could also purchase ‘small and intimate coaching sessions’ with Nicole herself for $36k. That is to say, she really saw them coming.
The Orgasm Cult makes a fairly comprehensive case that OneTaste was a dysfunctional and exploitative business, predicated on a predatory sales technique and pseudo-science of human sexuality. But further — and here, in fact, is the rub — OneTaste is currently being investigated by the FBI on charges of sex trafficking, prostitution and labour law violations. Former OneTaste employees, bankrupt on credit-card debt and disillusioned, claim they were forced to work long unpaid hours and participate in increasingly disturbing sexual practices in the ‘OM-houses’ where they lived and worked.
Nicole is revealed as (surprise!) a textbook ‘malignant narcissist’ with ‘delusions of omnipotence’ and a fussy diet. Within the safety of like-minded company, her philosophy took on a more straightforwardly bonkers form: she regarded orgasm as a ‘female god’, connecting us all in a ‘global orgasm system that was, like, going to power the world’ by unlocking the ‘fourth dimension’.
The Orgasm Cult is, mostly, an extremely entertaining listen. As we are repeatedly warned, some listeners will find the material upsetting: fairly early on, for example, we are treated to a crotch-level and rather mewling OM demonstration by a rather-too-eager husband and wife team, and throughout there are frequent intervals when, without warning, Californians are encouraged to express themselves emotionally (‘all of a sudden I was experiencing a tonne of intimacy’). If one can stomach these interludes, it is well worth the ride.