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Hustling for Respect

Larry Flynt, long the pariah of publishing, has no regrets about making millions off the skin trade. But he does want recognition for pushing the limits of the First Amendment.


The most misunderstood man in America is sitting in his gold-plated wheelchair in a penthouse office on Wilshire Boulevard and waiting for his moment to arrive.

In Larry Flynt's fondest dreams, that moment will make him whole, not merely a sum of his parts. In his most infamous guise, Flynt is a widely reviled pornographer, founder of the explicit Hustler magazine. Yet he was impotent for much of his reign, paralyzed from the hips down by a would-be assassin. And while Flynt skates the razor's edge of taste and publishing propriety, he also works the other side of the respectability aisle as a crusader for the First Amendment.

Once dubbed "the nightmare version of the American dream" by People magazine, Flynt literally wrapped himself in the American flag--he pinned it on as a diaper for a court appearance, thumbing his nose at a justice system that had smothered him in obscenity trials. His Gulfstream jet sports red-white-and-blue stripes on its tail because Flynt is, after all, "still proud to be an American."

Flynt, 53, says candidly that he went into the porn business for the money. But after years of bottom-feeding publishing and outrageous behavior, he went on to endure a less enticing side effect: the life of a pariah. Now he's hoping that history will be kinder to him than his reluctant colleagues in the media--even though controversy still clings to him.

"If you asked him when he was 20 and running go-go bars in Columbus," says freelance journalist and longtime friend Rudy Maxa, " 'Do you want $10 million or the respect of a grateful nation?' he would have taken the $10 million. But now that he has the money and his name on a building on La Cienega, there comes a time in a man's life when the next hurdle is respect."

And with any luck--and a leg up from Hollywood--Flynt won't have to die before he sees advance copies of his official bios.

Columbia is releasing the Oliver Stone-produced biopic "The People vs. Larry Flynt" in December, directed by Milos Forman and starring Woody Harrelson as the pornographer and Courtney Love as his fourth wife, the late Althea Leasure Flynt. Flynt signed on as a consultant and spent two weeks coaching the stars in the Cayman Islands. He also appears in the film as the Cincinnati judge who sentenced him to prison for a 1977 obscenity conviction that was later reversed. Sentencing himself "was a very strange feeling," he says.

Flynt's "expose autobiography," "An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit and Social Outcast," is being published by Dove Books in November.

Just check out the pornographer-outcast's dizzying schedule these days. First he's off to New York in mid-October for the premiere of the film, which is closing the New York Film Festival. Then it's on to Prague for a screening at the Presidential Palace for Forman's old friend Vaclav Havel.

That may not be a pornographer's usual stomping ground. But then Flynt considers himself "probably one of the most misunderstood personalities around. I constantly meet people who say, 'You're nothing like I thought you would be.' Well, what did you think I would be?

"You have a segment of society out there that thinks I'm a dirty old man in the basement of a building grinding out pornography every day. And the case I won before the Supreme Court against the Rev. Jerry Falwell was without a doubt the most important First Amendment case in the history of this country."

Not quite the most important, says First Amendment expert and L.A. attorney Doug Mirell. A lower court had awarded Falwell $200,000 for "emotional distress" because of a Hustler ad parody depicting the reverend as an alcoholic losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. The Supreme Court overturned that in 1988.

"Larry is engaging in another well-worn First Amendment-protected type of speech--rhetorical hyperbole. But since there was a question about whether [parody] was to be protected under the First Amendment, this is a landmark case which establishes that principle."

A new book on pornography by a Northwestern University professor argues that it's precisely in the most offensive territory that First Amendment wars are fought.

"Historically, pornography was defined as what the state was determined to suppress," writes Laura Kipnis in "Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America" (Grove Press). "Hustler's entire publishing history . . . has also been punctuated by extraordinarily numerous attempts at regulation and suppression. . . ." She compares Flynt and his penchant for vulgar political parody to the 16th century satirist Rabelais.

Still, Flynt is a hard man to feel sympathy for. How do you make a hero of someone whose mission in life is to shatter the publishing taboo against showing penetration?

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