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In HBO’s ‘Momentum Generation,’ the tide turns for the star surfers of the 1990s

(Art Brewer/Surfer Magazine)

HBO’s “Momentum Generation,” a revealing documentary about a tightknit group of professional surfers who achieved fame in the 1990s, begins with a litany of painful childhoods. Almost to a man, these legendary wave-riders describe growing up in one sort of broken home or another, often with an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent, where they suffered a range of abuse and neglect. From California, Florida, Illinois and elsewhere they set out on their own as teenagers and, almost miraculously, wound up living together in the late 1980s on the North Shore of Hawaii’s Oahu.

While “Momentum Generation” features plenty of satisfying and even breathtaking shots of surfing (after all, the project is brought to you by HBO Sports), it’s more surprising that filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist are less concerned with delivering a standard surf movie than exploring the ways in which boys become men — even when living as a feral pack of like-minded Peter Pans who are singularly focused on conquering their shared obsession.

“Momentum Generation” (premiering Tuesday) puts out a notably wide welcome mat, which means you don’t have to know or even care that much about pro-surfing history to become absorbed by it. To fans of the sport, these surfers are household names — Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Dorian, Kalani Robb, Benji Weatherley, Taylor Knox, Ross Williams, Pat O’Connell and Taylor Steele.

Aided by an ample supply of videotape (most of it from Steele, who found early success cutting together amateur films of his buddies surfing and hanging out together, set to punk-rock songs), “Momentum Generation” makes a clear case for the ways surfing saved these kids from less happy fates. Weatherley’s mother moved her family to Oahu after a divorce and began letting her son’s friends crash at her place. She soon realized that many of the boys never had a reliably nurturing home life. Before she knew it, she was the unofficial mother to a growing clique of future champions.

Inspired by early mentors while developing a common set of ethics about friendship and surfing, these young men came into early success by their late teens and early 20s. The endorsement deals that made them relatively rich coincided with a revitalized surfing aesthetic that did away with lingering Beach Boys tropes and imbued the scene with Gen-X cachet.

While they were changing the sport, it was changing them. With his crystal blue eyes, world champ Slater showed up in high-fashion advertising and got a cameo role on “Baywatch” (and, briefly, the attentions of its voluptuous co-star, Pamela Anderson). For a while, it seems as if there’s enough of this glamour and attention to go around, keeping it all to a friendly level of competition.

Of course, there isn’t. Predictable animosities form within the group, and friendships begin to fracture. A debate still continues over an offered palm and a reflexive high-five that led to Slater defeating Machado in the 1995 semifinals for a world title. The clan is also deeply shaken by the 1997 death of their friend Todd Chesser, who drowned at 27 while surfing the North Shore. Chesser acted as both a moral beacon and revered zenmeister for the original gang, and his absence leads to further drift and personal crises.

Most of all, before they truly recognize it’s happening, there is aging. Now nearing their 50s and long gone from the pro circuit, the men still answer the ocean’s call as both surfers and entrepreneurs. “Momentum Generation” offers them a reason to reunite and discover that the old hurts are far less important than the relief of letting go. “My friends helped me realize surfing doesn’t define you as a person,” Knox says. “There’s what you do and there’s who you are.”

Momentum Generation (105 minutes) airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on HBO.