Larry Flynt: America’s Proudest Villain
More than any role of crusading hero or evil villain, Flynt is best understood as an expression of pure identity; in turn, it has helped reveal to what extent this is and is not restricted by the rule of law in liberal society.
Flynt was born in the early 1940s in eastern Kentucky, a childhood of poverty, death (his younger sister died at age four), and divorce. His childhood reads like a picaresque: he hacked moonlight, he ran away from home, he used false documents to enlist in the army at the age of 15. (In a 1996 memoir he claimed that during a subsequent stint in the Navy he was part of a USS Enterprise who picked up the John Glenn capsule.) Flynt eventually decided on a life as a nightclub operator, buying his first bar in 1965 at the age of 23. By the end of that decade, he and his brother Jimmy had opened a chain of “Hustler Clubs” across Ohio, featuring live nude dancers.
From these clubs, the magazine of the same name was born in 1974 – and, with it, the legend and fortune of Flynt. scammer was presented as the anti-Playboy: coarse where Playboy was erudite, self-parody where Playboy has meticulously built his “brand” and the farthest thing imaginable from a “lifestyle” magazine. Insofar as scammer had something to say about American masculinity, it channeled a compulsive adolescent obsession with sex and a thirst to titillate taboos.
scammerThe desire to provoke above all else has led to extreme and sometimes surprising results: There was the shameless publication in 1975 of paparazzi photos featuring Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sunbathing that helped make the name of the magazine and then, a few months later, a surprisingly human and comprehensive image spread featuring a transgender woman.
Flynt’s dedication to pushing buttons has seen him appear in court – many times. In 1976, he was sentenced to potentially decades in prison for obscenity, but the verdict was overturned due to the prosecutor’s misconduct. For publishing a derogatory cartoon featuring his business rival, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, Flynt found himself in Supreme Court for the first time, in which he engaged in the aforementioned verbal abuse against judges while wearing a t-shirt that screamed “F — This Court ”. (The court’s opinion in Keeton v Hustler Magazine, Inc., set the precedent that the courts of a state had jurisdiction over the publisher of defamatory content distributed in that state, and scammer was ultimately ordered to pay $ 2 million in damages to Guccione’s girlfriend.)
In Flynt’s most famous case, the 1988s Hustler Magazine vs. Falwell, Reverend Jerry Falwell sued the magazine for writing – in an obviously parody “commercial” – that he had sex with his mother in an addiction. The court unanimously ruled that scammerThe parody of was protected speech, setting the precedent that for public figures “emotional distress” is insufficient cause of injury.
Less than a decade later, the Falwell Affair served as a dramatic pivot for Miloš Forman’s 1996 film that cemented Flynt’s legacy as not only a Hugh Hefner, but a player in the centuries-old debate over freedom of speech in America. Forman said he made this film “out of admiration for the beauty and wisdom of the US Constitution, which allows this country to surpass itself when called for by the worst.” He was undoubtedly sincere, but the end product is inevitably hagiographic, missed by a simplistic storyline that portrays Flynt as heroic foil to characters like Charles Keating – who, years before, he had become infamous as the face of l Reagan Era Savings and Lending. crisis, made a name for himself as an anti-porn activist on the crusade.
Flynt was a self-proclaimed liberal who spent most of his adult life as a gadfly in American politics, from his role in the Livingston scandal to a conceited campaign for governor of California to his hunt for incriminating documents on the president of the era, Donald Trump. But he was not an ideological actor; he was an opportunist. As with pornography, at one point the political realm was where he could get money and attention.
He pursued both interests in the same way: without taste, without judgment or shame. We remember Larry Flynt not so much for his intrinsic qualities as for what he thinks about the rest of us – the sordid, underground market demand that made him a millionaire; the cultural insult that we suffer every day but that we know we have to tolerate; and the law of the first amendment to which he contributed in his own way. Flynt was a purely American creature, someone impossible to imagine existing in any other society. As uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, he has also revealed throughout his life and work how even harder it could be to imagine an America that wouldn’t tolerate him.