Penelope Spheeris has set out three times to capture the ever changing music scene in Los Angeles. She interviewed the musicians, the fans, and the bi-standers of the scene. Her trilogy of life in L.A. have become cult classics over the years. She didn't mind showing how ridiculous and out there some of the characters that crawled the sunset strip were, and showing the impact that music has on people.
Her first documentary in this series is The Decline of Western Civilization, which followed the punk rock scene in L.A. The film features interviews and performances of some of the legendary punk bands of that time: Black Flag, The Germs, X, The Bags, Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, and Fear. It was filmed between 1979 and 1980.
The movie poster features a picture of Germs singer Darby Crash. Crash died right before the release of the movie, though the poster was designed before his death. In 1981, the LAPD chief of police wrote a letter demanding that the film not be shown in L.A. again.
The second part of the trilogy, and the most well known, is The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Filmed between 1986 and 1988, it follows the heavy metal scene on the sunset strip. It features performances by Lizzy Borden, Odin, Faster Pussycat, Seduce, London, and Megadeth.
It also features interviews with famed heavy metal and hard rock artists such as Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss, Motorhead, W.A.S.P. , Alice Cooper, and Poison. The film also features many classic examples of the excess during that era, such as:
- Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. is interviewed in a swimming pool while extremely intoxicated, with his mother sitting by the side of the pool.
- An interview with club owner Bill Gazzarri who used to organise a 'sexy rock and roll' dance contest, which was presented as being sleazy and sexist.
- Various musicians discuss how women, groupies in particular, are treated badly and with less respect.
- Riki Ratchman and Taime Downes, owners of the club Cat House, talk about how girls who dress more sleazy, get into the club faster.
- Paul Stanley of Kiss is interviewed in bed while surrounded head to toe by women
- Steven Tyler of Aerosmith talks about how he would spent millions of dollars on drugs.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III deals with the "gutter punks" of the 1990s. These hardcore street punks take the anti-establishment message with extreme seriousness, and tune out society completely. Spheeris talks to homeless teenagers living on the street or squatting in abandoned buildings in Los Angeles, along with an unstable mother, Los Angles Police Department officer Gary Fredo, and a paralyzed youth living on a disability. The film features performances by Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, and The Resistance.
The film premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and was also screened at the Cannes Film Festival and the Chicago Underground Film Festival. However, it never went into general release. It won the Freedom of Expression award at Sundance and a jury award at the Chicago festival and was warmly received by film critics.