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TELEVISION REVIEW

Never guilty of being dull

August 07, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

With former Playboy philosopher Hugh Hefner having retired to be a bit player in a reality show about his girlfriends, Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt has become the de facto spokesman for politically progressive publishers of what may still be called "men's magazines."

As seen in "Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone," a new documentary premiering tonight on the Independent Film Channel, he has a natural eloquence, oddly accentuated by his stroke-slowed speech. And having survived by three decades the assassination attempt that left him paralyzed, and having spent much of that time on the witness stand, in prison or on a soapbox in the service of his beloved 1st Amendment, Flynt has attained a gravitas that a casual flip through his publications would not necessarily suggest. Almost the first words we hear spoken here are, "On behalf of the ACLU and Harvard Law School, I am pleased to present Mr. Larry Flynt."

Even as he has been excoriated as a misogynist, racist and all-around bad egg, Flynt (who actually seems to be none of those things) has become a media figure of standing. His mainstream status is sealed by that of his interlocutors -- Larry King, Tavis Smiley, Ted Koppel all interview him here -- and by his audiences: We see him at an L.A. Times Festival of Books event, addressing a crowd I would not guess reflects the Hustler demographic.

Although it was female genitalia that made Flynt's fortune, it is the magazine's low humor and personal attacks that have just as often landed its proprietor in the papers or in court. Flynt's greatest legal victory ended a suit by the Rev. Jerry Falwell over a parody advertisement that claimed he'd lost his virginity to his mother, in an outhouse. The Supreme Court unanimously sided with Hustler. That the joke might not have been funny was beside the point -- or maybe it was the point, since bad jokes are every bit as protected as good ones. (And Flynt and Falwell subsequently became friends.)

Directed by Joan Brooker-Marks, the film is sketchy as biography, focusing mostly on Flynt's career as free-speech crusader and political gadfly. (For the broader view, we'll have to wait for "American Masters: Larry Flynt" or "Ken Burns' Porn.") And while it provides archival clips of some of his nemeses, including Gloria Steinem and Charles Keating (an anti-porn crusader before his misadventures in the savings and loan business), it is a partisan celebration from first to last. Some of the objectors seem quaint now: "When you attack Santa Claus," says one 1970s prosecutor, referring to a Hustler cartoon, "that's attacking, through sex, everything decent in this country." But others beg to be given a little more time than they get.

"The Right to Be Left Alone" does make Flynt interesting, but it isn't as searching as it might be. The regressive thrust of the magazine's sexual content versus the progressive tone of its politics raises the unasked questions of just for whom Hustler is made and how Flynt sorts out the apparent contradictions. And Brooker-Marks sometimes gives her subject more help than he needs to state his case. But understatement has never been Flynt's modus operandi, either: This is a man who came to court diapered in an American flag, who threw an orange at a judge's head and who, when fined $10,000 a day for refusing to name a source, had it delivered in cash by "porn stars and hookers."

The war against pornography having been won -- by pornography -- Flynt, who sued the Department of Defense to allow reporters on the front line in Afghanistan and dug up dirt on Clinton-bashing Congressman Robert Livingston during the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, now concerns himself with the fates of the nation and the press, which are for him the same thing. "The culture we live in today was born into a society where you could take your individual rights and civil liberties for granted," he says. "So they don't understand what the country would be like without the 1st Amendment." Had no one ever taken him to court, Flynt might not have thought about that much himself. But they did.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone'

Where: IFC

When: 6 and 10:45 p.m.

Rating: Not rated

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