After stumbling upon a bizarre “competitive endurance tickling” video online, wherein young men are paid to be tied up and tickled, pop-culture reporter David Farrier reaches out to request a story from the company behind it. Delving deeper, he encounters fierce resistance, and the more he investigates, the stranger it gets, leading to the discovery of decades of abuse. Compelling and disturbing, Tickled illustrates the damage that can result from wealth, privilege and an obsession with power and control.

Tickled, the feature-length documentary debut of co-directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, follows New Zealand TV reporter Farrier and his tech-savvy friend Reeve as they seek to untangle the mystery behind a competitive-tickling competition. When Farrier discovers these unusual videos — featuring tied-up young men enduring a cavalcade of ticklers — online, he contacts Jane O’Brien Media, the company responsible for the competitions.

To his surprise, Farrier is met with a barrage of homophobic rants and threats from the company, which, he admits, “made [him] more curious than ever.” The filmmakers are immediately hit with legal threats and three “associates” of Jane O’Brien Media fly to Auckland to talk Farrier and Reeve out of their investigation.

Eventually, Farrier and Reeve travel to hidden tickling studios in Los Angeles and uncover a vast empire, known for harassing and harming people who protest their involvement in these films. Along the way, they gain insight from journalists Hal Karp and Debbie Scoblionkov, who previously investigated similar stories; tickling fetishist Richard Ivey, who makes his own videos, but in a non-exploitative manner; former casting director Dave Starr, whose participation in providing young men for “tickle torture films” led to him experiencing the wrath of his former employer; and participants who have seen their lives ruined by a mysterious and vindictive online bully.

As Farrier and Reeve fall deeper down the “tickling wormhole,” they unmask a bully who has hidden behind the anonymity of the Internet for two decades.

The film premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and is directed by David Farrier & Dylan Reeve; producer, Carthew Neal; director of photography, Dominic Fryer; editor, Simon Coldrick; executive producer, Justin Pemberton; associate producers, Stephen Fry, Richard Ivey. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.