In a section of her 2014 book Men: An Ongoing Investigation, Laura Kipnis gleefully describes Larry Flynt
—who died yesterday of heart failure at the age of 78—as a “scumbag pornographer,” and subsequently condemns the major motion picture based on his life. Said motion picture, written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander and directed by Milos Forman, was of course 1996’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” and Kipnis’ argument against it is an interesting one.
Accusing the picture of “class condescension,” she sees its story of Flynt’s ostensible evolution into a First Amendment activist as one in which the Kentucky-born, unapologetically redneck strip-club owner turned magazine publisher (played by Woody Harrelson) becomes enlightened by more ostensibly acceptable members of society, including his Ivy-League-educated attorney Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton). The film’s scheme, Kipnis writes, means to reassure refined middle-class viewers that their own prejudices are proper ones. “Flynt only deserves our respect,” she elaborates, “when he starts kowtowing to the state: proper citizen in this movie means obeisance and sucking up to power; freedom means the freedom to conform.” Flynt wins a victory for the First Amendment, but he also, in a sense, winds up like Winston Smith at the end of “1984.”
This was not entirely the case in real life. Forman’s film chronicled the tragedies of Flynt’s story—his shooting in 1978, which left him paralyzed and led to a crippling painkiller medication, and the death of his fourth wife Althea among them. And the movie’s poster, or one of them, put Harrelson’s Flynt on a cross. But while Flynt enjoyed the chance to hang out with A-list Hollywood types while cooperating with the production of the film, and certainly took advantage of the business opportunities the movie’s publicity afforded him, he didn’t “reform” in its wake. Instead, he combined pornographic dissemination with social activism and muckraking. Which was always part of the magazine’s mix anyway—for a period the magazine’s publisher was the ex-yippie pot-stirrer Paul Krassner. Flynt chased dirt on Mitt Romney and endorsed Hillary Clinton, who was surely grateful.
The magazine that made him famous and infamous, Hustler, was so ostensibly downmarket that even to admit that one had looked at a single cover of the rag is a nervous-making enterprise for some. On his website the other day, the free-associating Jeffrey Wells wrote “The truth is that all day I’ve been afraid to acknowledge the death of porn publisher Larry Flynt, much less say anything about the guy. That’s because I’m afraid that progressive industry women might somehow get the idea that I’m a fan or that I respect Flynt’s career accomplishments or vaguely approve of his cultural influence, etc.” Poor guy. I’ll vouch for him: I’m sure he never cracked open a single issue. I myself looked at a few, especially when, at Premiere magazine, I tried to work with Evan Wright, who in the 1990s was a staff writer for Hustler. He did investigative stuff and porn star profiles, and he was very talented. But the magazine carried such a stigma that I could not get anyone on the Los Angeles office to even consider giving him an unpaid internship, which he would have been willing to take. The magazine, the first to feature open-vulva shots of its nude female models (one such pictorial, in 1984, was actually shot by Dennis Hopper, who placed his porn-actress models in front of abstract-expressionist canvases), was so anathematic that I think one of the staffers I asked to meet with Evan was hesitant to actually shake his hand.
This is not a tale told out of school—Wright tells some of it in the introduction to his book Hella Nation, including how David Foster Wallace, in a story he wrote for Premiere about the 1998 Adult Video News award, gave Evan the name “Harold Hecuba,” after the only guy who ever got off of “Gilligan’s Island.” Evan eventually did leave Flynt’s island, and wrote various exposés of Hustler-adjacent entities for Rolling Stone and other publications before penning the great Generation Kill. That Flynt, or Flynt’s people, hired Evan in the first place speaks to the fact that Hustler did at one point have its eye on something other than explicit photography and post-modern barnyard jokes delivered in crudely-drawn cartoons.
The point is that the fame Flynt derived from both his First-Amendment triumphs—and the legal battles—did not stop with the case depicted in Forman’s film, and his brief depiction in the mainstream did not, when all was said and done, compel him to actually go mainstream. He remained the fly in the ointment, and the caterer to tastes that we pat ourselves on the back for finding objectionable.