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Few mental illnesses elicit laughter, but sex addiction comes close. Tell a friend that you have a problem with sex, and he's likely to say, "Yeah, me too: My problem is I can't get enough." But for millions of Americans -- experts put the figure at 5 to 8 percent of the U.S. population -- sex is as much a destructive force as alcohol, drugs, or gambling. Like other addicts, these people are powerless to stop acting out, compulsively driven to engage in one-night stands, extramarital affairs, voyeurism, or exhibitionism. In the case of Caveh Zahedi, the problem is visiting prostitutes and porn theaters.
Zahedi, an acclaimed local filmmaker, doesn't fit the sex addict stereotype of a leering man with trembling hands. He's as thin as a rail, with a shy, toothy grin and a welcoming manner. When he speaks, he fixes his listener with a steady gaze, as if he were trying to communicate his every thought telepathically.
Such a need for communication makes sense in light of his career. Over the past decade, Zahedi has become an icon of autobiographical underground cinema, a figure both heralded for his bald honesty and criticized for his unwavering self-obsessiveness. In his first feature, A Little Stiff, he re-created a past love triangle in which the woman he was infatuated with wanted nothing to do with him. In his second film, I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, he took his real-life father and surly half brother on a trip to Nevada on Christmas Eve and plied them with drugs and money in the hopes of capturing art. Last year's documentary In the Bathtub of the World was Zahedi's most revealing work yet, chronicling 12 months of crying jags, drug trips, and odd dance moves.
But the movie that's closest to Zahedi's heart -- as well as other parts of his body -- has yet to be completed. For nearly 10 years, the artist has been trying to make I Am a Sex Addict, the story of his struggle with prostitution and porn. During that long decade, Zahedi watched his footing in the film world slip. Once regarded as a promising newcomer on a par with Richard Linklater and Todd Haynes, the 41-year-old is now considered a cult figure. I Am a Sex Addictmay be his best and last hope for commercial success -- as well as a dangerous flirtation with his unhealthy past.
Caveh Zahedi had a relatively normal childhood, although he moved around quite a bit. Born in 1960 in Washington, D.C., he lived in New York and Los Angeles until he was 9, when his parents shipped him off to a Swiss boarding school. His earliest memory of anything sexual is from age 8, when his mother found out about his father's mistress and took Zahedi with her to yell at the woman. Zahedi remembers not being sure what sex was, but understanding that "my father had had it, and it was bad."
In 1977 Zahedi headed off to Yale, where he acquainted himself with the era's "free love" ideology, as well as the ideas of Hegel, Eisenstein, and Timothy Leary. He began making films while completing his B.A. in philosophy, after which he migrated to Paris, intent on working with his hero, Jean-Luc Godard. Wandering around the city, upset with his lack of cinematic success, he began chatting up prostitutes. "I was flirting with them every day," he says from the window seat of his sparsely decorated Inner Sunset apartment. "I would be going somewhere and would just get off the Metro to go talk to them. I'd be hours late for whatever I was doing."
His first official visit to a hooker was done on a lark. "I thought it would be something pleasurable," he says with a sheepish grin. "But it was a very negative and traumatic experience, and I remember thinking, "That was horrible. I'll never do that again.'"
Still, the seed was planted. A couple of years later, Zahedi returned to Paris, deep in the throes of an unhappy marriage. When he tried breaking up with his wife, she attempted to kill herself; rather than leave her, he procured the services of another prostitute. Soon after, he told his wife about the transgression, but instead of divorcing him, she just stopped having sex with him.
By the time Zahedi relocated to Los Angeles to go to film school at UCLA in 1986, his compulsive behavior had ballooned, in much the same manner as other addictions. "The thing about sex addiction is that it has an escalatory quality about it -- the more you do it, the more you need," Zahedi says. "You always up the ante."
He started buying videos and magazines and frequenting porn shops and strip clubs that adhered to his particular fetish. "It was all very specific: blow jobs with the woman on her knees," he says. "It was the same every time."
His marriage ended in 1987, and Zahedi continued to cruise the prostitutes on Sunset Boulevard, often for four hours a night. (Like many sex addicts, he also had a heavy drug dependency, needing to get stoned every day.) Eventually, he began cruising gay bathhouses and checking out more outré forms of sex. "At one point, the old prostitutes weren't enough anymore. So for a time, I [cruised] transsexuals, and that seemed very exciting," Zahedi says, seeming uncomfortable for the first time in the interview. "Once you've gone past a point, the thing that you find a turn-on keeps receding -- like a mirage. It seemed to me at one point that there was no end to it."