"Pretty Woman" has many daughters, love children hatched by Hollywood honchos, then weaned on Harlequin romance. "Indecent Proposal's" million-dollar crybaby, Demi Moore, is the youngest of her brood, the object of affection in this politically incorrect fantasy of exchanging money for love. It's a movie diabolically designed to raise women's pulses and men's self-esteem, whispering sweet reassurances to both Iron John and Plain Jane.

"Indecent," a dramatic cousin of the comedies "Mad Dog and Glory" and "Honeymoon in Vegas," is a glossy romantic gamble that's paid off handsomely for producer Sherry Lansing and director Adrian Lyne. Box office receipts have topped $25 million in one week, despite savage reviews focusing on the movie's sexist story line: A dashing scion (Robert Redford) offers an indebted couple (Moore and Woody Harrelson)

a million dollars if the wife will spend one night with him.

All three movies -- and the upcoming "Household Saints" -- rely on a similar twist: Men get into financial trouble and women pay for it. Women are given a say, basically cosmetic, in the matter, but by and large they're bartered off by the menfolk. "The actresses are given the glamorous treatment, but the dynamic really harks back to prehistoric kinship patterns," observes film critic Molly Haskell, author of "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies."

In "Mad Dog and Glory," Uma Thurman is inexplicably working off her brother's debt to a loan shark (Bill Murray), who gives her to the nerdy cop (Robert De Niro) who'd saved Murray's life. Sarah Jessica Parker

is used as a marker in "Honeymoon in Vegas" after her goofy fiance (Nicolas Cage) loses $65,000 to an aging mobster (James Caan) in a poker game. Harrelson, an unemployed architect, also gambles away the family nest egg on an ill-advised trip to Vegas, where his saucy realtor wife is spotted by Redford.

Depending on your sexual politics, the films are either chauvinistic drivel or yuppie smut.

Sue Kuba, an associate professor at the California School of Professional Psychology, sees sexism on the screen. She calls the female characters in these films "updated versions of 'Unforgiven's' prostitutes, women who pay for men's mistakes with their bodies. That party has been going on for centuries. The new twist is that the women are emotionally attached to the men who ask them to sell themselves."

Although the men buying sex are handsome (Redford and Caan, anyway), in the end the chicks come home to roost. Moore and Parker aren't turned on by moneybags, and the hip young Thurman shakes off the acerbic Murray to snuggle down with the bumbling wreck, De Niro.

The moral -- money can't buy love -- must be reassuring to hunter-gatherers affected by the recession that still hangs over Los Angeles like economic smog. "I like to look at what's really going on in the movie industry when these films are written and optioned," says Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who shrinks the stars.

"People in the industry, mostly men who once had a lot of money, aren't making as much. And they're wondering how women would see them in similar circumstances. Although they might not have as much money as they had, or thought they would have, they still get the girl. And the same holds true for a lot of men in the audience, who find themselves struggling economically," says Lieberman.

Lieberman thinks these films also are part of the backlash against the increasing power of women. Douglas Winter, a lawyer and film writer, says that these pictures are "the last gasp of a fallen empire -- the men's." Winter also cites "a growing tendency in our culture to view each other as commodities, and you could view films like 'Indecent Proposal' as the ultimate extension of that."

In the three years between the release of "Pretty Woman" and "Indecent Proposal," things have changed for the working girl. Julia Roberts made her own bed and slept in it comfortably -- with no regrets. But Moore and Parker sit around jawing over the decision with their fellas -- or pimps. Basically, they're in charge of trolling the casinos for high rollers. And the terrible truth, should you be a member of the bustier-burning set, is that they groove on flaunting their fabulous figures.

As Nancy Friday, author of "My Secret Garden" and other books on sexual fantasies, points out: "A woman can run a company from 9 to 9, but what arouses her in her reveries is being wanted, having her body adored, because women have such a hard time adoring their own bodies. ... All the TV commercials used to be about getting the kitchen floor clean, now they're about douches and yeast compounds and a woman is judged by the cleanliness of her genitals."

And as Moore explains to her husband before she joins the Demi-monde: "It's just my body. It's not my mind. It's not my heart." (Some body it is too. She's invited us to behold and adore it both before and after her baby's birth. "Vanity Fare" indeed.)

In the film, Moore is comparatively chaste, even something of a tease. When Redford spots her in a ritzy Vegas boutique, we know that she knows that he's looking. She slips off the straps of her camisole and hefts her bosom, the better to see how she'd look in a $5,000 frock that's caught her eye.

He offers to buy it for her. No dice, buster.

"It's for sale, I'm not," she says and flounces off.

Jackie Collins might have written the scene or Barbara Cartland or any of a hundred housewives striving to become romance novelists. Actually, these lines do come from the purple pen of a woman, Amy Holden Jones, who adapted her script from the novel by Jack Engelhard.

The original story was far more politically delicate and doubtless complex: A diabolical Arab sheik makes the offer in hopes of breaking up the marriage of a Jewish man and his Mainline Philadelphia wife.

Jones, boiling mad over criticism of her script, says the movie isn't prostitution at all: "It's a {expletive} female fantasy!" she insists from her home in L.A. "The woman makes the decision, the woman drives the movie and she gets exactly what she wants in the end. What could be more of a fantasy than committing adultery with Robert Redford and getting away with it? Robert Redford is the object of desire in the movie, not Demi Moore!"

She sputters something about knee-jerk feminism and continues her self-defense: "It's a metaphor, a big Hollywood movie, about betrayal and forgiveness in marriage. It's a post-Cinderella movie about what happens to the perfect couple after the first mistake. It's not about prostitution! If you want to see a movie about prostitution see 'Mad Dog and Glory.' There's an {expletive} -- a woman caught between two men with barely a line!"

"Indecent Proposal's" happy ending, which brought hoots at preview screenings here and in New York, is not quite what Jones originally wrote. "I always intended her to go back to her husband. She was going to dump the billionaire -- but Robert Redford cannot be dumped." So a scene was added -- by Redford's own script doctor -- allowing the star to escape with ego intact.

"So it's politically incorrect," Jones fumes. "Well, so is Cinderella, and my 11-year-old daughter loves Cinderella! I'm as feminist as you can get, but every woman doesn't have to be {expletive} Norma Rae."

A feminist of another stripe, film critic Haskell, believes that Hollywood women in general "are collaborating in their own subjugation. Women have to become like men to succeed out there."

It's an attitude, agrees psychologist Kuba, that contributes not only to the whorification of women but to the limited roles for women in an industry that is increasingly given over to the men's movement. She cites "A River Runs Through It," the bucolic, Redford-directed ode to male bonding, as an example, but there are many more: "A Few Good Men," "Hoffa," "Chaplin," "The Distinguished Gentleman" and "Scent of a Woman" are all male-driven.

Haskell adds that there are no roles for huge female stars -- nothing written for a modern-day Bette Davis -- only ornamental parts for leading ladies. (Sharon Stone's privates included.) "Demi Moore isn't a star," says Haskell. "She doesn't steal the leading man's glitter."

In the end, no matter whom you ask, it all comes down to the anti-feminist backlash. And both men and women seem to be feeling the sting, the loss of what Nancy Friday calls "the deal that stood for centuries: She will stay home and care for the kids and he will provide for her needs. We haven't given men anything to replace that."

These recent films' kinkier aspects aside -- "Watching their wives with other men is a prevalent enough fantasy for men" -- we're witnessing the renegotiation of the marital contract on screen, Friday says. "There's a tremendous amount of not-so-buried rage out there and men, who love women, either grope awkwardly or act out their rage creatively.

"It's the kind of rage women used to feel toward their husbands. They couldn't express it, because there was Harry dying from overwork to support them and the kids. So they'd drink silently and go crazy."

Now men are becoming househusbands, moving across the country as the "trailing spouses," and making less money than their wives, too. "No wonder men are making movies that put women in old-fashioned roles," Friday says. The oldest profession is more like it.

But the men who make the movies couldn't be more surprised by the reaction to their films: "I thought the movie would be taken as a bright little trifle, something Billy Wilder might have done," said Lyne in an interview with the Dallas Morning News.

"I wanted to make a romantic comedy of the old school," says "Honeymoon in Vegas" writer-director Andrew Bergman from his New York office. "I'd never made a movie with a major female character and I wanted to do that. I never thought my movie was about screwing women, about getting back at them for this hideous {women's} movement. Now, put me on an analyst's couch and it might be different.

"From what I gather, Adrian Lyne's movie is just high-gloss romance with a lot of sizzle," says Bergman. "But the subject {of both films} obviously cuts very close to the bone. This woman at the health club said she finally saw my picture, and I asked if she'd seen 'Indecent Proposal.' She said, 'No, but I wish it would happen to me. I'd do it in a heartbeat.' I guess she felt she'd been with worse guys than Redford and hadn't come out with a cent. We're talking about a form of hookerdom, yes, but some feminists consider marriage a high-class form of prostitution."

His movie wouldn't be funny, Bergman says, if Sarah Jessica Parker actually did the nasty with James Caan. Parker, a schoolteacher with a swimsuit model's figure and the bikini to prove it, wants to get married, but Cage puts off the wedding to play poker in Vegas. "She goes off to Hawaii with Caan to teach Cage a lesson," says Bergman. "She puts her fiance through hell, but she never sleeps with the other guy. It's not as simple as chattel."

Love may be for sale, but it's not on sale. What bought Richard Gere a weekend with Julia Roberts -- the film was originally titled "Three Thousand Dollars" -- wouldn't buy three minutes of phone sex with Demi Moore. That's because the johns aren't just buying sex, they're buying safer sex. They're buying one-owner women: wives, sisters and fiances.

In the era of AIDS, the strictures of monogamy also take on new importance, which Lyne's films "Fatal Attraction" and "Indecent Proposal" ultimately reinforce. In both films, the intruders -- Glenn Close and Redford -- are repelled and the family is reunited. Ultimately it comes down to traditional family values, the homespun hokum that has put the Clintons, Bushes and Reagans in the White House.

Bergman says he never wanted to force women back into the kitchen, but that is most surely Lyne's objective. The guy's got a positive thing for kitchens, which have served as locales for sex scenes in "Fatal Attraction," "Indecent Proposal" and "9 1/2 Weeks." One day they'll invent a washing machine that turns into a hide-a-bed, and maybe then we'll all be happy. Or maybe it should be a Dustbuster that can be handily converted into a vibrator.