VICE TV’s ‘Sex Before the Internet’ dives into Atlanta’s infamous Gold Club

Gold Club employees, patrons and owner, Steve Kaplan, spend a final evening inside the club Thursday, Aug. 2, 2001, after reaching a plea bargain in federal court. (JENNI GIRMTAN/STAFF)�

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Gold Club employees, patrons and owner, Steve Kaplan, spend a final evening inside the club Thursday, Aug. 2, 2001, after reaching a plea bargain in federal court. (JENNI GIRMTAN/STAFF)

The Gold Club set a high-class standard in Buckhead for Atlanta’s nightlife in the ‘90s, before a federal investigation effectively shut the club down. Before its closing in 2001, the club became a major draw for professional athletes, lawyers, judges and politicians and earned an international reputation as the place to party in Atlanta. Depending, an all-night bacchanal at the Gold Club often cost tens of thousands of dollars.

On Tuesday, VICE TV’s show “Sex Before the Internet” returned for a second season by exploring the infamous celebrity magnet.

“We always knew that there was a story within the strip clubs and in the nightlife scene, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” says Steven Baker, vice president of development at Candle Media, which co-produced the series. (Season one, from 2023, featured Plato’s Retreat, the New York City swingers club from the ‘70s and ‘80s.) The Gold Club’s story became the obvious choice, between its upscale accommodations and the racketeering trial that followed.

The stage and a stairway leading to private rooms at the Atlanta's The Gold Club are shown Thursday, May 10, 2001. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

In Georgia, strip clubs at large at the time could offer complete nudity and alcohol, when clubs elsewhere in the nation could only legally offer one or the other — making Atlanta “the Vegas of the South,” in the words of Gold Club doorman Marcol Gardner in “Sex Before the Internet.” The season 2 premiere features five former Gold Club employees reveling in how the Gold Club became an Atlanta landmark, the best of the best, luring in sports and entertainment elite.

“You could be in the Gold Club, and Michael Jordan, Sinead O’Connor, Puff Daddy, Madonna might pull up,” says former waitress Sabriya Lynch, who was featured in the episode. “I waited on John Gotti Jr. You just never know who would be in there.”

Lynch spent hours-long day shifts handing out admission passes to promote the club, either downtown or at restaurants like Tavern at Phipps Plaza. As a result of such hard work, convention-goers and members of what was then National Poultry and Food Distributors Association, who Lynch remembers as the “chicken pluckers,” would flock to the Gold Club after hours.

“They were just so wild. ... It’s like, oh, they let you off the farm and you don’t know how to act,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Waitresses advertising the club would offer door-to-door limo rides to newcomers. Inside, stairs on each side of the main stage led to a balcony that led to VIP rooms upstairs and a view overlooking the entire club. Waitresses dressed in satin-smooth, tuxedo-inspired shirts and shorts would conga around the main floor, said Lynch. Other high-class offerings ranged from “$5 for one fried shrimp,” as Lynch says in the episode, to bottles of champagne that cost anywhere between $350 and thousands of dollars.

The Gold Club was so immersive that it even had its own currency. Gold Bucks were first printed on yellow paper just a few centimeters larger than an actual U.S. bill, and later on cardboard with actual barcodes, says Lynch.

Lynch once made $10,000 in tips one night. The real-life earnings that Gold Club employees accrued was “life-changing,” she says. “It was the first time I started vacationing.”

Sept. 28, 1988 - Atlanta, Ga.: - A scantily dressed dancer descends the stairs onto the stage recently at The Gold Club, a nude dancing club at Piedmont Road and Lindberg Drive.

Credit: AJC Staff

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Credit: AJC Staff

The larger point of the episode, though, was that such a money-making opportunity might not exist today. Gold Club staff used to whisk celebrities up to VIP rooms through the club’s back steps, Jackie Bush, otherwise known as “Diva” inside the Gold Club, says in the episode. That private cover wouldn’t be possible now in the age of camera phones and social media.

“When you have Jerry Springer, Dan Akyroyd, Robin Leach, and all these big-name celebrities coming through your club, they are looking for privacy,” Bush says. “So I cannot imagine if we had camera phones back then. ... That would have been ridiculous.”

For years, the only people who could testify to such high-profile clientele were Gold Club staff themselves. But then people contesting credit card bills from the Gold Club, once as high as $25,000, prompted federal investigators to investigate what they initially suspected was fraud.

In spring 1999, police and the IRS raided the club. A dozen Gold Club employees, including Bush, were indicted. Charges against the club included credit card fraud, but also racketeering, airline fraud, wire fraud, extortion, loansharking, corruption, and conspiracy to funnel money to the Mafia. The Gold Club’s owner, Steven Kaplan, was a New York native who got his start in business running his father’s newsstands at Penn Station; police once suspected him of being consulted by the Gambino family to better run Scores, the nightclub that inspired the 2019 movie “Hustlers,” after seeing the Gold Club’s success.

During the 2001 racketeering trial, NBA star Patrick Ewing testified that he received sexual favors from two Gold Club dancers, though said they didn’t qualify as prostitution, since he was told the cost was “taken care of.” The resulting trial was perhaps the last time that the media took interest in the Gold Club. (“If there were cameras in that courtroom, it would have been pretty wild,” Baker says.)

Beyond the U.S. Marshall warning, the sign from the side of the Gold Club is removed in 2001. (ANDY KJELLGREN/ Special)

Credit: special

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Credit: special

After 14 weeks of testimony, though, Kaplan put an end to the trial by agreeing to serve up to three years in prison, a $5 million forfeiture, and to relinquish the Gold Club. He received nationwide federal transactional immunity for any criminal act committed before his plea and was sentenced to 16 months. The trial ended before Kaplan would say a word publicly about the establishment, on the stand and otherwise. VICE’s attempts to feature Kaplan “didn’t work out,” Baker says, though Bush assures that her former boss is doing fine. (“He just bought his first jet,” she says.)

Kaplan’s deal effectively put an end to what gets called “the largest racketeering case in the history of the state of Georgia.” That’s according to Steve Sadow in “Sex Before the Internet.” He’s a defense lawyer who represented Kaplan and is perhaps the episode’s most prominent guest.

He would know: More than 20 years later, Georgia is once again in the national spotlight thanks to its racketeering trials, albeit ones tried under state prosecutors this time. Sadow represented Sergio Kitchens, the rapper known as Gunna, in the still-ongoing YSL trial before Kitchens took a plea deal, and he’s representing Donald Trump in the case alleging election fraud. VICE’s Gold Club episode was filmed last summer, when Sadow became Trump’s lead counsel, though “we steer clear of current events in this series,” Baker says. (Sadow did not respond to AJC requests for an interview.)

Atlanta has also changed considerably since the Gold Club was put on trial. On one hand, “our culture is much more sex positive than it was back then,” Baker says. And the popularity of other Atlanta strip clubs, like Magic City, helped introduce “making it rain”— the act showering dancers with actual dollar bills — to pop culture at large.

But at least from a legislative standpoint, the metro area is perhaps less open to strip clubs than it was during the Gold Club’s heyday. Following the Gold Club trial, Lynch started work at Mardi Gras, another strip club in what is now Sandy Springs. Sandy Springs has since shut down Mardi Gras, among others, following a 2005 ordinance forbidding alcohol sales at strip clubs.

As for Bush, she has relocated to Reno, Nevada, and now works at a casino. But her phone number is still local to Atlanta, for how other family members have stayed down South. “Atlanta’s always going to be home to me,” she says.

Better yet, since last summer’s VICE taping, Bush has gotten even more requests to revisit the Gold Club’s prime, for TV and potentially a podcast.

“Everybody’s just intrigued by it, and I’m flattered and honored,” she says.

But, she adds, the renewed attention is overdue.

“This is a moment in time that should have been brought to light a long time ago.”


“Sex Before the Internet: Sex in the Champagne Room” is now streaming at