‘Spermworld’ Documentary Introduces the ‘Sperm Kings’ Who Use Facebook to Donate to Dozens — or Hundreds — of Women

“Donating sperm makes me feel good. Maybe it makes me feel wanted, and needed. Worth something to somebody else,” says Stefan, one of the subjects of “Spermworld,” the new FX on Hulu documentary that delves into the landscape of unregulated babymaking and just why prospective parents have sought out these unconventional solutions.

Director Lance Oppenheim went deep inside another distinctive community with his last documentary, “Some Kind of Heaven,” about The Villages in Florida. And there’s a throughline to Oppenheim’s films: They combine lushly saturated camera work with a narrator-free approach that lets subjects tell their own stories about their sometimes quixotic lives. That’s also the case with his next project, “Ren Faire,” a three-part HBO series about the Texas Renaissance Festival and its charismatic founder that premieres this summer.

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Oppenheim fell into the world of prolific sperm donors through former New York Times reporter Nellie Bowles — who is married to ex-New York Times columnist Bari Weiss — and was interested in finding a donor. “She was in a relationship with another woman and they were looking, and they weren’t quite happy with the options that they were finding at the sperm banks,” says Oppenheim.

Her quest resulted in the article “The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand,” and working with Bowles on the article led him to realize there might also be a documentary in this fast-growing movement.

A lack of inventory and the high cost of traditional sperm banks had spawned, so to speak, a network of Facebook groups that enable prospective mothers to solicit donations from men who were eager to help them. “I started seeing all these people — women and men advertising themselves, and I started sensing that behind each post there was a story,” he says about the New York Times-produced documentary.

Some are clearly doing it for sexual reasons, whether it involves brief “N.I.” — natural insemination, or sex, as the first scene in the documentary shows, or through artificial insemination. Some become attached to the idea that they’re helping women, similar to giving blood, while others — like the film’s subject Ari Nagel — like the idea that they’re fathering dozens or hundreds of children around the world.

One of the lures is that unlike conventional sperm banks, these prospective parents and sperm donors have the chance to get to know each other, yet there are very few legal formalities that take place. “They’re total strangers — there’s no blueprint for how these people should be interacting with each other outside of the regulated sperm donation space,” Oppenheim says. So he asked himself, “What are these tender and sort of uneasy moments that I’m seeing online? How do they translate into real life, and how how can I be there to to capture that?”

FX’s SPERMWORLD – An FX Original Documentary – Premieres Friday, March 29 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FX and Streaming Next Day on Hulu -- Pictured: Tyree Kelly. CR: FX
Tyree in “Spermworld”

The film mostly follows three donors and several prospective moms who agreed to let Oppenheim follow them with his camera: Nagel, a teacher who travels the world in an effort to meet up with the children he has biologically fathered and remain some small part of their lives, despite his mother’s discomfort with the idea; Stefan, a recently-divorced man who is looking to form a deeper friendship with his recipients, such as Rachel, a young woman grappling with cystic fibrosis; and Tyree, who loves helping people but whose own partner is struggling to conceive.

The intimate scenes of their lives include children coming to understand what it means to have a donor who drops in every so often, tense donation sessions in suburban motels and witnessing the crushing disappointment of women who aren’t able to conceive. Sometimes, Oppenheim says he had to stop shooting when things got too personal: “There were plenty of situations that aren’t in the film out of respect to the participants that were a little too painful, a little too vulnerable.”

For the women, they’re in it to end up with a baby. But what is driving these men? “They’re looking for something maybe bigger than themselves. They’re looking to cement a sense of legacy, a sense of purpose,” Oppenheim thinks. “A lot of the people in the film are are at different crossroads in their lives, questioning how they got to where they are and why are their lives not what they thought it would be. I think that kind of existential question is the thing that animates each scene.”

Oppenheim admits that some of the “sperm kings” are getting some type of erotic satisfaction. “I don’t think it’s purely sexual, but there are parts of it that are.”

Ultimately he says, it’s about, “How do we create families, how do we choose families, what does family even look like?” And as with other kinds of families, there can be legal issues with these informal donations that are less tightly controlled than with conventional sperm banks.

“There’s no signing contracts or exchanging documents,” Oppenheim explains. If a recipient is no longer able to care of a a child, in some states the custody would revert to the father. “No one’s really signing contracts or exchanging documents,” he says. “It’s just not that enforceable.”

Nagel is said to have fathered at least 138 children, but the film doesn’t come down on whether this has any moral or genetic ramificatins, though on screen Nagel’s elderly mother loudly declares her opposition to the idea. “Part of my job is a filmmaker is I really try to not express any sense of judgment. I love spending time with him, and I relate to him in a number of ways,” says Oppenheim.

“I think a lot of people will have a a strong reaction to his life choices,” Oppenheim acknowledges of Nagel, “but I think the thing that is fascinating about him is that I do think his heart is in the right place, even if his head is is in a different place.”

So what is the thread that unites Oppenheim’s revealing documentaries? “I’m interested in these sort of unorthodox settings,” he says. “Whether that’s like Florida with The Villages, like the dream of retirement, or in sperm world that’s the pursuit of family. Then ‘Ren Faire,’ it’s a different question, but it’s really about power and proximity to power and finding that the kind of things that underpin the fantasy, the feelings of inadequacy or loneliness.”

Oppenheim thinks his approach to making documentaries can serve as a bridge to narrative films. “I like the people in the films to be narrators of their own lived experience — that’s kind of equivalent to watching a fiction film.” In fact, he says he is excited about a narrative script he’s been working on, and hopes to get off the ground soon.

In making documentaries, “Sometimes it feels like I’m working with actors because I’m letting them into the process,” he says. “So hopefully going back and forth between the two worlds won’t feel as daunting.”

“Spermworld” premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on FX and streams starting Saturday on Hulu.

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