Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone

Larry Flynt. The Right to Be Left Alone

Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone looks to be an “authorized biography” documentary, a celebration of the subject with the subject’s full cooperation. In that regard, it reminds me of a/k/a Tommy Chong. Flynt is to porn as Chong is to drugs, I suppose.

Not only are the movies similar, but my reactions are similar. I liked both. I thought both were above average documentaries. Both held my interest pretty much the whole way. I had a mostly favorable opinion of the central subject going into both films, and a more favorable opinion at the end.

Indeed, Flynt may be the more admirable of the two, certainly in terms of the price he’s paid for sticking to what he believes. Which is not to downplay the degree to which Chong was persecuted or the degree of courage with which he dealt with it. But the government threw a lot more at Flynt over a longer period of time. He endured longer incarceration and more physical abuse at the hands of the authorities than Chong, and without giving in.

Some of the worst treatment he received was for refusing to give up a journalistic source in the government, but he believed to do so would have a chilling effect on the press, so he wouldn’t give in.

I’m not even including his being shot and sustaining the horrific, and permanent, injury he did. Granted that came about due to his being a public figure and taking certain stands, but it’s not like he voluntarily accepted that going in. It was something that was unexpectedly done to him.

(I didn’t know, by the way, that the shooting of Flynt and his lawyer was never solved, and that a long time later a convicted serial killer—a white supremacist type incensed by interracial dating, sex, marriage, and porn—claimed to have done it.)

The movie gives considerably more attention to Flynt and Hustler’s iconoclastic political speech—political cartoons, reporting of politicians’ sex scandals, antiwar diatribes, etc.—than to the nudie pictures.

Not that the two can be fully separated. Perhaps the most striking scene in the entire movie is a clip of an interview with the Cincinnati prosecutor in Flynt’s ’70s obscenity trial, where he talks about how imperative it is to shut Flynt up because he criticizes and makes fun of politics and religion and everything that’s “sacred” in America.

It’s hard to imagine someone more cluelessly admitting they’re violating the First Amendment. You can argue back and forth whether non-political speech such as porn is covered by the First Amendment, and if so where you can draw the line, if anywhere (child pornography? bestiality?), but under what possible interpretation of the First Amendment would criticism of political, religious, military, economic, etc. elites not be covered?

Criticize Flynt all you want for other things (and surely he’s open to a lot more criticism than one would think who knew nothing about him except what is shown in this hagiographic movie), but he couldn’t be more right and his opponents more wrong on that basic Constitutional issue.

The prosecutor even notes with alarm that Flynt made fun of Santa Claus. He seems to regard that as a far more serious crime than the beaver shots.

Not that either could be illegal anywhere that has any right to call itself a free society, but it’s just interesting in what it reveals about the prosecutor and his priorities.

As far as the porn, during most of the time Flynt was being persecuted for “obscenity,” Hustler was really, really tame. I haven’t opened a Hustler in probably more than 20 years, and doubt I saw more than four or five issues in my life before then, but back then they had only lone models and simulated sex. I believe now they finally have penetration.

I got a kick out of conversations I had years ago with a small number of women who sought to show they were sensible “moderates” on the issue of pornography by citing the fact that they could accept Playboy and maybe Penthouse, but never a horrible hard core rag like Hustler.

It’s true that Hustler’s always gone slightly farther than Playboy or Penthouse, but on the porn scale, where 1 is as soft core as it gets, and 100 is the most extreme hard core material out there, Playboy was a 3, Penthouse was a 4, and Hustler was a 6. You’d have been hard pressed to find any magazine in an adult bookstore that wasn’t harder core pornography than Hustler.

Still, Hustler and Flynt—largely intentionally—were and are popular targets for the anti-porn crowd, including many feminists. And while I think the case made against Hustler and against pornography in general by what Flynt offhandedly refers to as “the right wing of the feminist movement” is weak, I’d like to have seen it addressed more fully here.

There are very brief clips of some of the movement’s Flynt opponents such as Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem, but that’s about it. I wouldn’t say the clips misrepresent their positions—the clips are fine as far as they go; it’s not like the film picks their most ridiculous sounding comments out of context—but they aren’t shown presenting anything remotely resembling a full argument for their positions. The movie tells us some feminists hate Flynt and his magazine, but we don’t get anything more than bumper sticker length reasons as to why.

Also, while the film tells us a lot about Flynt’s travails fighting for his First Amendment right to bash politicians and public figures, it doesn’t give us as much as it could about the other tragedies, tribulations, and controversies he’s experienced. There’s a fair amount, though not as much as there could be, about his paralysis and other terrible injuries from the shooting. (I assume his penis is one of the things that’s dead, which would seem to be quite the irony for a pornographer.) There is even less about his wife’s long term, and ultimately unsuccessful, battle with drugs. It’s not left out, but it’s covered pretty quickly.

Flynt has had way more suffering in his life than most people have to endure. Again, that doesn’t make him a good or bad person, and it doesn’t make him right or wrong in this or that stance he takes, but this guy’s been through a lot.

Yet, again like Chong in a/k/a Tommy Chong, at least when the cameras are rolling he maintains a pretty positive attitude toward it. He’s shown a lot giving talks, taking questions from the audience, being interviewed, etc., and he’s consistently in good humor, confident, witty, and engaging, at least once you get past the fact that due to his injuries he speaks a little slower than most people and cannot articulate well.

I think he’s quite sincere—as is proven by the price he’s willingly paid—in believing what he says he believes, but that’s not to deny there’s some huckster in him. The peculiar incident in the ’70s when he claimed to have become born again under the influence of Ruth Carter Stapleton is brushed off quickly in the movie with a laugh, but pretty clearly that was either a publicity stunt, a dishonest attempt to get more lenient treatment from the government, or both.

It’s also interesting that though he and Jerry Falwell started as bitter enemies, after doing a lot of interviews together they seemingly recognized each other as fellow con men of sorts and became quite friendly, touring the country together staging debates and such. Each realized the other was the perfect foil to get more publicity and appeal to their fans. Kind of like Muhammad Ali doing his shtick of ridiculing and verbally battling his opponents to drum up publicity, while really having no ill will toward them.

Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone overdoes the hero worship, but again, as far as the core issue it addresses, it does a fine job making the point that it’s precisely unpopular speech, and especially unpopular speech that makes the powerful squirm, that most unambiguously needs and deserves the full protection of the First Amendment.

I’m a Larry Flynt fan.

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