In an age when any remotely cool club goes from underground to overexposed in less than a nanosecond, the nostalgia for stalwarts of debauchery like New York’s Limelight runs deep. The Chelsea church-turned-megaclub at the center of Peter Gatien’s nightlife empire (which included Tunnel, Palladium, and Club USA) serves as the focal point of Billy Corben’s new documentary, Limelight, opening August 26. After producer Jen Gatien approached the Cocaine Cowboys director about making a film about her eye patch–wearing father, Corben agreed, provided she didn’t expect a “Memoirs of a Gatien” hagiography. Of course, when you have 1,000 people on the payroll—from convicted killer Michael Alig to musician Moby—servicing 60,000-plus club kids, fashionistas, rockers, and hip-hoppers a week for two decades, there’s no dearth of stories—such as 55-gallon barrels of ecstasy punch being served from the DJ booth, which Gatien disputes now that he has seen the film. What is true, he says, is that “Gaultier and Mugler used to come to get inspired.” Unfortunately, the rise of Gatien’s ecstasy-fueled outposts dovetailed with then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s draconian “quality of life” campaigns, which prompted the DEA to send in informants. Corben deftly juxtaposes the club’s hedonistic atmosphere with the obsessive witch hunt via archival footage and exhaustive interviews—set to a pulsing soundtrack—with the night birds, day jobbers, and profit-hungry rats who helped sentence the club king to years of bankrupting litigation and, ultimately, deportation. Back in Canada, where he’s developing a nightlife-based TV series, Gatien observes: “My thing was about creating culture. Now it’s this bottle-service, poseur crowd. What culture is coming out of that?”

Photo: Brooks Osman