(Credit: Claire Boxall)

Louis Theroux's 10 best documentaries ranked in order of greatness

“The world is a stage we walk upon. We are all in a way fictional characters who write ourselves with our beliefs.” – Louis Theroux

There are few better contemporary interviewers than Louis Theroux. The softly-spoken British cultural icon known for his deft ability to extract moments of honesty even from the most tight-lipped interviewee’s. Usually sporting an unkempt head of hair, large rimmed glasses and a pair of excavating eyes, part of Theroux’s allure is in the facade of his appearance, presenting himself as if he is none the wiser, despite the fact that he is analysing every word. 

Speaking to The Guardian, Theroux was critical of his early career breakthrough, commenting: “Mainly I was distracted by my appearance, voice and how I came across. The way my hair is piled on top of my head. The faint mid-Atlantic twang in my accent…I was definitely a little bit of a tool, but what was harder to know was whether that was an obstacle or part of my gift.”

Through 40 separate documentaries, six sprawling series and one feature-length film, it is clear that Louis’ own facade of ignorance is in fact part of his own gift as an interviewer. Often it is this mild-mannered demeanour that makes him such a friendly face to approach and for individuals to confide in. Travelling to distant corners to cover the world of wrestling, porn and hyper-Calvinist religion, let’s take a look into his very best investigations…

Louis Theroux’s 10 best documentaries:

10. Altered States: Love Without Limits (Arron Fellows, 2018)

Travelling to Portland, Oregon to meet people engaged in a polyamorous relationship (a relationship involving multiple romantic, and typically sexual, partners), Louis Theroux explores the anatomy of polyamory with a classic sharp eye.

His journey follows the lives of three groups of people, each with varying degrees of willingness to be involved in such a multi-faceted relationship, leading Louis himself to strip off and absorb himself within his study by taking part in a “sensual eating workshop”. One group of people, including Bob, Nick and Amanda are questioned about their relationship, with Louis asking Bob, “Is there a part of you that wishes you were enough for Amanda in the same way as she is enough for you?”, to which Bob revealingly replies: “A little part of me wishes I could make her completely happy”.

9. Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends – Wrestling (Ed Robbins, 1999)

Exploring the world of amateur wrestling is both enlightening and hilarious in the last of the second series of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, an ode to some of the world’s strangest and most interesting passions. 

Taking a look into the industry of wrestling from an amateur level through to the professional World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Theroux spends time with several key players including Rowdy Roddy Piper, Goldberg and Randy Savage, disclosing some genuinely enlightening thoughts from each one. The highlight of the episode is perhaps Louis taking his athleticism to the next level by putting himself in the ring, and allowing ‘Sarge’ to push him to the point of literal sickness. 

8. Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends – Porn (Geoffrey O’Connor, 1998)

Louis’ third weird weekend took him to the porn industry, interviewing both male and female porn stars to search for the truth behind the elusive industry, exploring the many physical issues they face on a consistent basis.

From issues of being unable to maintain a prolonged erection, to the lack of roles in ‘straight porn’, Theroux looks into the industry from a characteristically non-judgemental stance and prods at its particular functioning. Featuring as a PG-friendly side character in an actual pornographic film, Louis once again immerses himself within his area of exploration and, with a large dose of wit, analyses the industry well.

7. Louis And The Brothel (Geoffrey O’Connor, 2003)

Continuing the documentarian’s pornographic interests, here he catches up with the owners of America’s newest legal brothel, The Wild Horse Ranch in Reno, Nevada, spending three weeks exploring the fascinating lives of the workers who run the ranch and the customers who help keep it afloat. 

Although one of Theroux’s more humorous documentaries, Louis’ trip to the Nevada brothel is also a sad one tinged with the lives of many who find themselves lost and isolated. Providing a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of such a profession, the thin, prefab beige walls of The Wild Horse Ranch work together with the barren Nevadan landscape to create one of the documentarians most mysterious works.

6. Louis And The Nazis (Stuart Cabb, 2003)

Covering everything from weird weekends in redundant industries to being on the forefront of cultural change, here Louis immersed himself within the world of neo-Nazis to get to know the inner workings of such an abhorrent group.

Meeting with white supremacist Tom Metzger, the founder of the ‘White Arya Resistance’ in California, Theroux does well to balance nuance in this documentary, allowing the group time to voice their reasoning before unreservedly disagreeing with their stance. In one of the documentarian’s most famous films, when he comes face-to-face with families encouraging racist hate speech and songs of a racist agenda, his friendly veneer drops and a damning disgust takes over.

5. Louis Theroux Extreme Love: Dementia (Louis Theroux, Dan Child, 2012)

Of all the highly entertaining films and subjects that Louis Theroux has explored, his study into dementia is certainly his most sincere, tackling the gravity of the illness with an emotional and gentle touch. 

Visiting those who suffer from the psychologically erosive illness, as well as the family members and doctors that dementia affects, Louis’ documentary is particularly heartbreaking and perhaps one of his very best. A poignant insight into the devastation of this psychological condition, Extreme Love: Dementia is too one of Theroux’s most life-affirming watches, showing how love, above all, can endure even the most painful hardship. 

4. Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends – Body-building (Alicia Kerr, 2000)

The greatest of Louis Theroux’s documentaries are those which put the documentarian in a position that is totally foreign to his own, and his trip to the Californian world of body-building did just that, interviewing individuals that dwarfed him in size and grandiose. 

On one of his final weird weekends, Louis works out with leading body-building amateur Guy Grundy, before choosing to instead explore the lives of professionals from their intricate bronzing routine to their fetishized public appearance. Travelling to Charles Peeple’s farm in Connecticut, where a Playboy mansion for female bodybuilders has been erected, Theroux explores the nature of such an industry, and in the episode’s most interesting section, evaluates the strange fandom that surrounds such a profession.

3. Louis Theroux: Under the Knife (Emma Cooper, 2007)

Louis’ cultural investigations once again took him to California in 2007 where he would investigate the medical world of plastic surgery, and specifically the lifestyles of those who subscribe to repeat procedures. 

In the seemingly simple flick of the knife and markings of a pen, an individual can adapt their appearance and rid their minds of their own conceived imperfections. The question as to whether this is a positive or negative thing is explored in Theroux’s documentary in which Louis himself tries to access the thrill of such a transformation by receiving liposuction himself. Aside from the procedures themselves, what’s interesting here is the psychology of each of the documentary participants, reflecting a rather sad state of contemporary society. 

2. The Most Hated Family In America (Geoffrey O’Connor, 2007)

The most famous documentary series in Louis Theroux’s factual filmography, this three-episode saga chronicles the lives and relationships of the Westboro Baptist Church, charting its hatred and downfall across several years. 

A small town hyper-Calvinist hate group known for its inflammatory pickets against LGTQ+ communities as well as Jews, Muslims and other religious groups, the Westboro Baptist Church was picked apart by the documentarian on three separate occasions. A highly uncomfortable, yet fascinating watch, Theroux’s frequent revisits to this hate-filled community have seen interviews with the group’s highest members, as well as those who abandoned its principles. Ultimately, like many of Theroux’s deeply humanistic documentaries, this is a sad film exploring the fear and frailties of several despicable lost souls.  

1. Louis Theroux Miami Mega Jail (Emma Cooper, 2011)

This two-part documentary looking into the life of inmates, as well as the behind the scenes functioning of Miami’s 7000-resident large mega jail, is Louis Theroux’s most dense and impressive investigations. 

Analysing both sides of the argument for and against such an establishment, Louis takes a detailed look into the jail asking the inmates, those who the establishment directly affects, on their thoughts on such an oppressive system. What makes this Theroux’s very best documentary is the investigative journalism that clearly went into its production. Where other documentaries seemingly only scrub the surface of their content, this one digs deep and really asks the viewer to question their own attitudes to such systems. Only Louis Theroux could have the personable confidence to enter such a place and extract such honesty from some of America’s most forgotten individuals.

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