Starring: Larry Flynt, Ron Jeremy, Suze Randall
Director: Michael Lee Nirenberg
And what a story it is, as recounted in this rude, brash, boisterous documentary. Starting out as a 5-page flyer for Kentucky-born Larry Flynt’s chain of titty bars and taking its cue from Al Goldstein’s countercultural Screw magazine, Hustler quickly became the bete noir of the establishment for its shocking irreverence, culminating in its publication of nude photographs of President Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline Onassis. Put on the map by an obscenity trial that received huge press coverage, the magazine would continue to encounter all kinds of hurdles in the late ’70s – first when President Carter’s sister turned Flynt into an unlikely born-again Christian, and then when Flynt was gunned down in the street for printing interracial boy-girl layouts.
In interview, serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin calmly explains how he shot Flynt twice with a .44 calibre rifle and expresses mild surprise that his victim survived. It’s a rare dark moment in a film that generally accentuates the positives of the pornography business. Proudly pointing to the magazine’s anti-tobacco, anti-advertising stance and its pioneering work on issues such as the greenhouse effect, Back Pages pays fond tribute to the talents who made the pages of Hustler burst with colour – photographers such as Suze Randall (“we were really struggling with how to light the nudes and light the pussy”), super-realist artists such as Ren Wicks and Alex Ebel and cartoonists such as Dwaine Tinsley. But inevitably Flynt predominates – running a foul-mouthed Presidential campaign on a platform of painting the White House pink, dragged before the Supreme Court for contempt after refusing to name the source of a tape to do with the John DeLorean drugs scandal: part Barnum and Bailey-style showman, part confrontational performance artist, but 100 percent anti-authoritarian.
The son of a former employee of Hustler, director Michael Lee Nirenberg gives the bare minimum of screen time to dissenting voices (we hear from one feminist critic, plus one prosecuting attorney rendered speechless by the magazine’s depiction of Santa Claus and Mrs Claus’ bedtime antics). All the same, there’s enough wry humour in the interviews to provide some critical distance, and audio recordings of editorial meetings allow flashes of insight into the more obnoxious, aggressive side of Flynt himself. Overall, though, the mood is understandably nostalgic. The Hustler brand may have marched on into the digital age, but the magazine now seems like a piece of Americana from a long-lost epoch. “We’re raising a generation of kids who feel they don’t have to pay for nude photographs,” says porn star Ron Jeremy indignantly.