In a society that suddenly is awash with death, what does wellness mean now?
It means washing your hands at frequent intervals while singing Happy Birthday twice. It means being too frightened – or legally unable – to use public transport or attend your workplace, or returning to isolation after a new cluster in your area. It means every surface is suspect. It means presuming you have it, and that you could kill your elderly grandparents or parents.
In our new world, what a surreal experience it is to enter the Goop Lab.
The six-episode documentary series, hosted by Goop founder and actress Gywneth Paltrow, was released at the start of the year (200 covid years ago), and scored a very poor 2.3/10 on IMDB and a slightly better 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. With its strange but brave attempts to film the unfilmable – ideas that include energy healing – the show now feels like a relic from another era.
Which in a way makes it the perfect escapism for our times. Staffers at Paltrow’s lifestyle brand/empire, Goop, travel across the world to take magic mushrooms, or go cold-water swimming, or attend an orgasm workshop – all in the name of wellness. Watching it is like visiting Narnia.
The premise of the show is stated by Paltrow at the start of each episode: “My calling is something else besides making out with Matt Damon on screen or whatever.” As though making out with Matt Damon is the equivalent of being stuck in a hell realm.
Instead, with our one life we’ve been given, she says we need to “milk the shit out of it.” Self-optimisation comes via self-improvement, by way of wellness experiences.
Most of the episodes in the series explore areas of wellness that are unregulated and unproven, and sit on an edge that could tip into silly, dangerous, pathetic or profound.
Take the first episode, in which Goop staff go to Jamaica and take magic mushrooms. Have you ever sat stone-cold sober and watched someone take a trip? It’s pretty dull. They giggle, they lie down, they dribble a bit; sometimes they cry, sometimes they vomit.
The problem with filming a psychedelic experience is that it all takes place within the user’s head. What you get is just a series of weird facial expressions and non sequiturs about owls and abandonment and carpet that’s moving and “this thing that happened, you know the thing … when I was little?”
Episode two on cold-water swimming (the “Wim Hof Method”) is a lot more enjoyable and relatable now that Australia’s beaches have reopened mid-winter. This is an episode I watch with the intent of doing it myself. Using a special breathing method taught by Dutch endurance athlete Hof, Goop staffers who have a range of hang-ups and conditions are not only swim in icy water without a wetsuit, but also manage to “cure” their anxiety and panic attacks.
If there’s one must-watch episode in the Goop series, it’s episode three, on the female orgasm. The episode is so good – so accurate and well-done – that, in the context of the show, it almost feels like a mistake.
It’s also funny and courageous.
Funny because the expert on the show is 90-year-old sex educator Betty Dodson, who is an incredible character in her own right. At one point, she has to explain the difference between a vulva and vagina to Paltrow, who mistakes the two: “The vagina is the birth canal only,” Dodson says. “You want to talk about the vulva, which is the clitoris and the inner lips and all that good shit around it.”
And courageous because about 20 minutes in, a real-life vulva is shown on screen, filmed in a sensitive but also matter-of-fact way. When we’re so used to women’s bodies (particularly genitals) sexualised on screen, it’s actually genuinely shocking to see a real-life, normal-person vulva – just sitting there, chilling.
Society is cooked like that.
Goop Lab then takes it up a notch by filming an actual masturbation and orgasm. This is the first time many women (and men) would have had the vulva explained to them, and seen what an orgasm actually looks like; Goop is offering a valuable community service, and goes some way towards redeeming itself from the more disappointing and woo-woo episodes at the end of the show. (How do you depict the transfer of “healing energy” from one body to another? How do you film the voices in the head of the medium who says she communicates with people’s dead relatives?)
If you go into the Goop series seeking to be entertained rather than informed, then there’s a lot of fun to be had. And if you are only going to watch one episode, make it episode three.
• The Goop Lab is streaming on Netflix