In any era, Kids, the first feature from provocateur photographer-turned-director Larry Clark, working from a screenplay by a teenage savant named Harmony Korine and featuring a group of balls-to-the-wall nonprofessional actors from Manhattan’s skate and rave scene, would have pushed some buttons. After the take-no-prisoners opening scene, it’s revealed that Telly is HIV positive, and he’s infected countless girls all over the city.
The impact Kids had when it hit theaters in 1995 was unprecedented. Miramax tried to release it, but their parent company, Disney, nixed the plan, so Bob and Harvey Weinstein, convinced the film had a big audience, and with the hype and controversy at fever pitch, went rogue and released Kids independently via a separate distribution company named Shining Excalibur.
If there was a statistic for how much free publicity an independent film could generate in the years before the social media explosion, Kids would own the title, hands down. At a time when the OJ trial was overwhelming everything on cable and network news coverage, Kids became the only other story worthy of any airtime. The result: a record-breaking opening weekend for an independent film.
The Kids media phenomenon was in large part a by-product of the nationwide AIDS scare that had recently expanded beyond the disease’s primary demographic—gay men—and had become part of the national dialogue. If you were a teenager in the early to mid ’90s, having sex was like playing Russian roulette. It didn’t matter if you were heterosexual or gay, straight-edge or sharing needles with your junkie friends. You could lose your virginity to a sober partner who’d never gotten naked in front of anyone else, but according to the mantra being chanted by parents, teachers and public service announcements on TV, you still couldn’t be absolutely, 100 percent sure you wouldn’t get infected. The proof: Magic Johnson, a self-proclaimed straight non-IV-drug user and one of the most beloved athletes in the world. If he could catch the virus, anyone could.
But the real, lasting impact of Kids, its ultimate legacy, had nothing to do with the AIDS crisis. Both Korine and Clark have gone on the record to say that Telly’s HIV status had nothing to do with what they were trying to accomplish with the film—it was just a plot device to keep things moving. Clark’s decision to work with nonprofessionals and employ naturalistic camera work created a documentary/real-life feel that scared a bunch of parents, but that was just noise.
What the film did do was turn an entire generation of teenagers on to New York urban skate culture and fashion, namely the skate shop/brand Supreme, which had recently opened and served as a de facto clubhouse for many of the films actors and thus became a wardrobe staple of the film. Clark, who had fomented his reputation on his raw depictions of teenage sex and drug use with his iconic photo books Tulsa and Teenage Lust, discovered his ideal subject matter when he started hanging out with the skaters in Washington Square Park who agreed to be in his movie. By showing these teenagers being themselves—talking about girls, making out in pools, getting naked and smoking—Clark and Korine turned an entire generation of American kids on to a new kind of cool.
Along with establishing Clark as a director and Korine as a voice of his generation (he’d go on to direct the art-house cult classics Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy as well as 2013’s Spring Breakers), Kids also launched the careers of a number of its cast members, some of whom proved unable to handle the demands of the spotlight. Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson and Leo Fitzpatrick all went on to enjoy legitimate and highly successful careers as actors and tastemakers. But arguably Kids’ most charismatic cast members, Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter, fell victim to their own demons. Five years after the film’s release and during what seemed to be a promising acting career, Pierce committed suicide in a Vegas hotel room, while Hunter, a revered skateboarder as well as a fixture of New York’s downtown nightlife scene, died of a drug-induced heart attack in 2006.
More than anything, Kids showed Middle America, Europe and Asia that skateboarding wasn’t just the half-pipe aerial tricks by Tony Hawk and Mike McGill. Skating was urban youth culture, and there were no barriers to acceptance to the club. All you needed was a board and a basic idea of how to roll a blunt. And if you needed any guidance, all you had to do was watch the movie, where one of the skaters (Hamilton Harris) shows you how it’s done.