There’s a curious aspect to the porn world at the moment that is under-explored. As the mainstream, quasi-legal industry settles into late middle age, more and more children of original old school pornographers are emerging to share their memories or explore their parents’ unusual careers. In the UK, we’ve seen Tyger Drew-Honey – son of Lindsay Honey / Ben Dover and Linzi Drew – examining the industry in a typically hand-wringing and morally concerned BBC documentary (you don’t get a documentary about porn on British TV these days unless it is thoroughly disapproving), and now comes this new documentary by Michael Lee Nirenberg, son of Hustler magazine art director Bill Nirenberg, who was there throughout the magazine’s most notorious days on the 1970s and 80s.
Larry Flynt has already been the subject of films – both bio-pic and documentary – so you might imagine there is little left to say about his publishing empire. But you’d be wrong. This documentary smartly focuses as much on the magazine as it does on Flynt – though admittedly, the two are so closely connected that you can’t imagine one without the other. But the focus here is very much on the product over the producer, and all the more interesting for it.
The thing about Hustler is that at its peak, it was the more daring and subversive magazine in America. Not just for being the first to show ‘pink’ (prior to Hustler, girly mags ensured that the models kept their legs firmly closed and their pubes fully grown) or for the increasingly explicit content, but because the magazine deliberately poked the bear of conservative thinking. It was provocative in its editorial stance, it’s layouts, its cartoons and its articles, and while it has long been a joke about no one buying girly mags for the words (never true, but an easy way to dismiss them), Hustler seemed to exist as a magazine that was a self-contained whole. Hugh Hefner might have wanted to placate his critics – Flynt and Hustler said ‘fuck you’ to them and made sure that next time, they would go a little further.
Hustler was the down to Earth answer to the social climbing of Playboy and Penthouse – the working man’s porn mag, if you like. It challenged, it pushed the limits of good taste and it had a tumultuous existence for the first decade or so that it existed. Despite the fact that more explicit material was available in X-rated movies and other magazines, Hustler‘s wide distribution and determination to offend saw it hauled through the courts, Flynt imprisoned, insulted and of course almost assassinated. Like the magazine or not, there is no questioning the guts it took to do something like this is such a defiant manner.
The story of Hustler is, of course, cinematic gold. Forget the trials and the assassination attempt for the moment. What other porn mag had a head who became a born-again Christian for a while but carried on publishing, even producing the famous ‘meat grinder’ cover as a bizarre – but actually not inaccurate – feminist statement? The only publication that came close to matching Hustler in terms of outrageousness, explicitness and political fury was Al Goldstein’s Screw – but Screw was a newspaper, not a magazine, and was barely seen outside New York. Hustler took the best of Screw and refined it into something more commercial. This fact is not lost on Flynt or Goldstein, who were friends and rivals. Goldstein appears in the film, a barely recognisable, wizened old man – a sad far cry from the vibrant character we have been used to seeing in video clips. He would, of course, die before the film was released, his Screw empire long since lost.
Like Screw, Hustler had the smarts to pick up the hot young creatives from the underground – Cafe Flesh director Stephen Sayadian, who isn’t in this documentary, cut his teeth in the art department, while everyone from Sixties radical Paul Krassner to Film Threat‘s Chris Gore and underground publishing guys like Mike McPadden did their time on the magazine. There were event the celebrity photo shoots organised by the likes of Frank Zappa and Dennis Hopper, costing huge sums of money but giving this disrespectful skin mag a sheen of cool that its rivals could only look at with envy.
Nirenberg’s documentary tells this fascinating, often chaotic tale in a non-nonsense, slick and relaxed way, allowing the story to develop naturally through the stories of those who were involved, Flynt included. His interviews with his dad are the only point where he (understandably) places himself into the narrative, appearing on-screen and acknowledging the relationship (he could have easily not made it obvious, but then would perhaps have opened himself up to criticism about vested interests). The other Flynt brother, Jimmy, is interviewed, as are several past staff members, as well as the likes of Ron Jeremy, Taylor Wane, photographers Suze and Holly Randall (another multi-generational porn family!) and the lawyers who tried to keep the magazine out of the courts. There’s also room for opponents – the man who first prosecuted the magazine, and anti-porn campaigner Gail Dines, who predictably spouts factually free nonsense, at one point making an entirely fatuous and immediately disproven claim that the magazine was racist. So racist in fact that it ran the inter-racial photo spread that saw Flynt shot by actual racist Joseph Paul Franklin, who is also interviewed from his prison cell (while Franklin admitted the shooting, he was never charged for it; he was executed for other crimes last year. Flynt objected to the execution.)
Unlike the afore-mentioned British TV documentaries, Back Issues feels no need to take a moral stance on porn in general or Hustler in particular. This lack of criticism will be seen as some as being ‘pro-porn’, but it’s actually just a case of being even-handed and telling a story, not preaching a belief. It’s quite a refreshing approach, and probably means a British TV sale is out of the question. Notably, given the subject, there is less explicit material here than you might expect, the more graphic magazine images being censored for display in the film. I can’t fault that – they might have been something of a distraction.
This is an excellent, entertaining documentary film that does what all good documentaries should do – it informs you about a subject you might not know much about. I did know a lot about this particular magazine already, but after watching this film, I certainly know more. That’s all you can ask, really.