In 1913, while living in San Francisco, Sol Lesser learned that the authorities were about to clean out the Barbary Coast district, a raucous area of gambling houses, saloons and brothels. He grabbed a camera and a friend, future Hollywood cameraman Hal Mohr, and roamed the area, especially the parts that were best-known before the area was shut down. (The Barbary Coast was not actually closed down until 1917.) This film is now considered a lost film.
The resulting film was The Last Night of the Barbary Coast, an early example of an exploitation film that was sold directly to movie theater owners by Lesser. With the profits from the film, he bought several theaters, and soon owned a cinema chain.
Sol Lesser signed Jackie Coogan to a movie contract in 1922, establishing both as major Hollywood names. The Coogan-Lesser hits included Oliver Twist and Peck's Bad Boy. Lesser made a successful transition to sound films, with his own Principal Pictures company; he would either distribute his productions himself under the Principal name, or arrange for a major studio to release them under their own trademarks. In 1933, Lesser produced Thunder Over Mexico a compilation film made from Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico! with the permission of Upton Sinclair, who had commissioned the Soviet film maker, and his wife.
His productions usually had higher budgets than the usual independent features; Lesser was able to produce entire series with name stars like Bela Lugosi, George O'Brien, and Bobby Breen.
In 1933 Lesser succeeded in buying screen rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan character. A serial with screen newcomer Buster Crabbe resulted, but Burroughs, deciding to make his own Tarzan films, refused to renegotiate with Lesser. Burroughs's movie enterprises were short-lived, and the rights passed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Lesser would not return to the Tarzan property until 1943, after MGM relinquished the rights. Lesser's new Tarzan films were produced for RKO and starred Johnny Weissmuller and later Lex Barker and Gordon Scott, and Lesser devoted himself to these jungle adventures for the rest of his career.
Later films include Our Town (1940) and the all-star wartime revue Stage Door Canteen (1943). Toward the end of his life he was actively involved in restoring many of his early productions.
Lesser retired in 1958. "I had reached the age that one either finishes on top or far below. I decided I would end on top, and I was satisfied," he said.
Lesser was buried at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, California.