Nowadays, the name Hugh Hefner likely evokes the image of an elderly man in silk pajamas, flanked by a bevy of ridiculously young beauties partying at his Beverly Hills mansion. But, as the entertaining documentary "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel" proves, the founder of the Playboy empire has been not only a wildly successful purveyor of hedonism but also an influential defender of human rights and moral freedoms.
Writer-director Brigitte Berman presents a treasure trove of archival footage here along with an enjoyably eclectic array of interviews with Hefner supporters (including Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson, George Lucas and Joan Baez), several detractors ( Pat Boone, author-feminist Susan Brownmiller) and, of course, "Hef" himself.
The film is at its most enlightening, though, when it revisits Hefner's groundbreaking TV ventures "Playboy's Penthouse" and "Playboy After Dark" (cozy variety shows with a socially conscious bent) and recounts Playboy magazine's landmark literary and editorial achievements.
Unfortunately, Berman skips past the darker implications of Hefner's sexual universe and omits discussion of how the periodical business — and access to erotic imagery — has changed in the Internet age. Still, the movie remains an involving look at an American icon as well as an adept snapshot of our national zeitgeist from the McCarthy era through the Reagan years.