“What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another.”
– D.H. Lawrence, 1885-1930

The Reverend Jerry Falwell wasn’t laughing when he read Hustler Magazine’s absurd Campari aperitif ad parody claiming that Mama Falwell had generously introduced the virginal Bubba-Jerry to manhood. I’ve never heard what the Campari corporation thought of the publicity, but the good Rev shit purple Twinkies. Years before, a cowardly gunman hadn’t even cracked a smile when his racist self-abuse (that’s “masturbation” to you non-ex-Catholics) had been upset by an interracial Hustler spread. And feminist Gloria Steinem certainly isn’t smiling today, knowing that the man she views as being to women what Hitler is to Jews is being presented in a popular movie as a free-speech hero.

Who is this man who can piss off so many different kinds of people with such ease? Who is this Larry Flynt that American’s publicly revile but privately make rich? Is he really an unrepentant oppressor of women? A martyr in the cause for free expression? A nouveau riche hillbilly from Kentucky who had the audacity to get stinking rich?

Larry Claxton Flynt has certainly been America’s favorite pervert ever since Milos Forman’s biographical film, The People vs. Larry Flynt caught the mainstream media’s feverish attention. There’s nothing for TV ratings or selling papers like focusing on the alleged evil deeds of an infamous and wildly prosperous pornographer.

Flynt has been a dream-come-true for “respectable” members of the media; an opportunity to talk about sex, porn, and the adult entertainment industry while shaking its collective head in virtuous disapproval. Flynt leaves people feeling troubled; on the one hand, he and Hustler Magazine have emerged victorious from the halls of the Supreme Court, which lends him some “respectability”; but on the other hand, the man once fucked a chicken (and admits it!) and regularly runs photos of women’s pussies. He confounds liberals, who claim to oppose censorship and support women’s self-determination issues, while he infuriates the religious and political reich, which strongly disapproves of any exploitation which thrives without their blessing...and a generous donation. But who the hell is this man?

While the film, and Flynt’s new autobiography, An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast certainly provide amazing insights into this riddle, don’t expect to come away with all the answers after watching Woody Harrelson’s Flynt wear American flag diapers into court or seeing Courtney Love’s Althea splash lasciviously in a hottub with her lover-man and a tasty-looking black girl. Even combined, they left me with more questions than they answered. I want Autobiography 2, dammit!

There’s no question that this year’s media PR blitz will cause a lot of people to go, “Wow, I had no idea!”

I’ve already spoken with several sexually progressive friends who, although not ready to offer Flynt their daughters, no longer see him as the Demon Pornographer of 90211. Hopefully, many people will see the film and read the book in order to get a more complete picture of the man whose eldest daughter, Tonya, is dogging her father’s limelight, accusing him of child molesting and generally bad-parenting. Tonya is the product of Flynt’s second marriage.

According to his autobiography, Flynt’s second wife was more generous than his first; instead of fucking everyone except Larry, wife #2 fucked everyone including Larry. Perhaps Tonya’s confused about which daddy was hanging out when and since her estranged, biological papa is rich, despised and currently high-profile... Old-school feminists are all aquiver with excitement over their new anti-porn mascot.

None of Flynt’s children are mentioned in the film, although you’ll find a few pictures of them in the book. There are also photos of little Larry, seaman Larry, younger brother Jimmy, and their mother (both of whom helped him in his career), bridegroom Larry, wife #4; the tragic and beautiful Althea, and Flynt’s fiancee of five years (that’s one patient woman). The Hustler fortune has been a family enterprise, employing three generations of Flynts, including his third child, Theresa (from union with wife #3). So much for the claim that pornography destroys families.

Even if you still find Flynt’s raunchy pussy worship too rich for your blood after you’ve read the book and ogled Courtney Love’s tits, you will find Flynt to be disturbingly human; not a very good villain at all. At worst he comes across as a naive, occasionally immature, hard-headed, vulgar, manic-depressive, blue-collar horn-dog with a sick sense of humor, who could be an irrational dick, and at best be comes across as a sincere, well-meaning, hard-loving, hard-working, red-blooded, eccentrically individualistic American male genuinely surprised to learn that there are people who think they have the right to legally (or illegally) shut other people up. But is this, as some have claimed, an incredible whitewash of a man with a jaded past?

There's an old saying about not judging a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins. In Flynt's case, we'd have to roll a mile in his wheelchair. I haven't built a multimillion dollar porn empire (yet) but I have spent time screaming from pain in a hospital and I know how nerve-wracking a steep sidewalk ramp can be when you're riding on four wheels. A couple years after I got back on my own two size eight-and-a-half's I did a tour in the wild and wacky world of lithium. There's really no way of adequately communicating how any one of those things (let alone all of them together) can influence a person's behavior.

There's no question that Forman's film takes genuine life raunch and roll and sanitizes it so that today's literati (and miscellaneous film award boards) will find it palatable. Fans of Hustler and adult publications are already sympathetic, if not always enthusiastically so, to The Cause and may be disappointed by the relative lack of nipples and bush. But we're all pretty familiar with what those look like, and know where we can find it, thanks in large part to Flynt. The point here isn't to increase subscription rates or make a XXX autobiography (though it wouldn't be difficult), but to make a long overlooked point: all this guy did was make a few (million) bucks showing pictures of naked women and cracking off-color jokes, for which he's been crucified for it by the press, the courts, and the justice system. Feminists may well choose to complain about alleged sexual oppression, but that's ultimately an issue for the labor laws.

Likewise, An Unseemly Man sometimes reads like a fever-dream which jumps from one memory to another without filling in the spaces between, ending with Althea's death and the Supreme Court victory. The man who'd never read the First Amendment until his ass was in hot water now waxes philosophical on its wisdom. But so what? How many of you have read the First Amendment? How many of us have had our guts spilled out by some asshole with nearly perfect aim? How many of us have ridden the roller coaster of clinical mania until we thought we'd seen God? And how many of us have sat in a wheelchair in unbearable pain while being a test case by a country unprepared for the exercise of the freedoms it claims to value? If I'd been vindicated (and kept out of prison) by the First Amendment I'd probably erect a fucking shrine to it in my bedroom.

It's easy to judge Flynt, whether or not you've seen Forman's fascinating feel-good movie of the year or read Flynt's more in-depth, written photo album. It's easy to accuse him of putting on sheep's clothing and expecting America to hail him as a new-born porn messiah. But it's also easy to forget that Flynt is a flesh-and blood man who has only recently been freed from the emotion-enhancing and mind-clouding effects of chronic pain and massive doses of anything and everything that could take the edge off.

Thanks to an amazing new, experimental surgery at Duke University (which you can read about in his book), Flynt is his own man again. No longer in searing agony and with an understanding of how manic-depression has influenced his behavior, Flynt has seized the opportunity to tell his side of the story, de-emphasizing the circus-sideshow sensationalism that America has traditionally included with Flynt-related news and focusing instead on the less known or understood elements of his life. In this brave new world with people in it who are far less shocked by lesbianism, drug use, swinging, pussies (and more) than they were when Hustler first graced the magazine racks, behavior like Flynt's is not considered quite as outrageous as it once was. America is now used to naughty celebrity high-jinks. Hell, we're disappointed if our pop icons are too well-behaved. The public is finally willing to listen, if not completely understand.

Larry Flynt doesn't seem like much of a pervert to me, but then I've been called a libertine myself. Flynt is, and caters to, voyeurs and I am a voyeur. Whether it's a film, like The People vs. Larry Flynt or a book like An Unseemly Man, or a magazine like Hustler, I enjoy peeking through the keyholes of other people's minds and seeing what I can learn about my own. I don't care whether Flynt wants the world to love him now or not; I'm not interested in pointing at his feet of clay. He's a guy like any other guy; he just got stinking rich doing what many other guys would be willing to do for free...and then some blue-nose (or is that blue-ball?) got tweaked out of joint and tried to make a federal case out of it. It could have been you. It could have been me. Hell, it still could be.

Don't expect to see Forman's movie and be a Flynt expert; take it as a supplement to Flynt's own book. And don't expect to read Flynt's book and know his every secret. But see the movie and read the book because, whether or not you think he's wearing lanolin underwear these days, the world would be a lot less flesh colored today without him. He's earned the right to tell his story and keep his secrets. Which is not to say I won't keep looking for new keyholes to peek through.

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