Hustler‘s insistent, repetitious return to the imagery of the body out of control, rampantly transgressing social norms and sullying property and proprieties, can’t fail to raise political questions.
— Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (1999)
The American people have a right to know how the military is conducting the war. The press has an obligation to report it. It’s an important First Amendment issue. This lawsuit should have been filed by the mainstream press, not me. But I think they’re too worried about who is going to get the next interview with George and Laura Bush.– Larry Flynt, “Larry Flynt’s War” (Columbia Journalism Review 2002)
Larry Flynt means to offend. He also means to gain attention, make money, and, in his way, tell truth. According to the documentary Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone, he feels a particular odium toward apathy. “I think it’s the biggest threat that democracy has,” he says, “People don’t care or they don’t think they can make a difference.”
Whatever else you say about him, it’s clear that Flynt cares and, despite all kinds of odds, remains determined to make a difference. It’s well known that Flynt’s profits from the Hustler empire reach past $400 million, that he won a Supreme Court case against Jerry Falwell, and that he was shot through the stomach in 1978, by a man offended by his decision to picture a black man and a white woman together in his magazine. He’s never walked again since that day, but he has continued to make trouble as best he can, targeting mainstream politicians and the press, railing against official efforts to curb information, communication, and all manner of speech. “We figure freedom of the press is only important if it’s offensive,” he says. “If it wasn’t offensive, we wouldn’t need the protection of the First Amendment.”
The film returns more than once to an ACLU-sponsored presentation Flynt makes at Harvard Law School. He apologizes at first for his lack of “literary” framing, but submits, “Since I’ve been dragged through most of the courts, imprisoned, shot, and paralyzed, defending the First Amendment, I figured I could give you a view from the trenches.” His audience nods appreciatively and asks him polite questions. He admits he was wrong on the famous “woman in a meat-grinder” cover, though only because it was satire that “fell flat,” not because it was odious (because, of course, that was the point). If he’s not exactly open to the idea that the determinedly dirty porn he proffered was “wrong” — whether Chester the Molester or racist stereotypes — he is consistent about the need to protect offensive speech above all.
While he offers himself and his publications as examples of the same, he is not always so transgressive as he may think. There are essentially two arguments to make against Flynt’s sort of porn. It’s sensationally degrading and exploitative (as Andrea Dworkin says here in an archival interview, “Hustler has this extra dimension of hatred of women’s bodies”) or it is only repeating tedious and entrenched attitudes, not transgressive at all (boys find magazines in their father’s closets). What has made Flynt’s case more salient than porn in either of those senses is his insight — much repeated — that he’s exposing hypocrisies.
This became a theme early for Flynt, as the film recounts. A brief sequence shows his first obscenity lawsuit, brought by Charles Keating of Cincinnati’s Citizens for Decency Through Law in 1976. Though Flynt was convicted and sentenced to 25 years for “pandering and engaging in organized crime” (the latter being the sort of charge-trumping used to make him an “example”). The verdict was overturned on a technicality, and Keating went on to junk bonds infamy. Flynt’s most famous suit, memorialized in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), was brought by Jerry Falwell in 1983: a series of appeals led to a unanimous verdict by the Supreme Court in 1988, for Flynt and political parodists everywhere.
That it does so somewhat obliquely is all to The Right to Be Left Alone‘s credit: more impressionistic than biographical, less apologetic than abstract, and decidedly non-chronological, it keeps a focus on the thematic connections among porn, democracy, and freedom — as varying emblems of the “America” Flynt extols. It slips occasionally into self-serving sentimentality (Flynt insists that he loved fourth wife and soulmate Althea’s intelligence above all, which may be true, but he also makes no mention of his other four wives, including the present one, Liz) or spends long non-narrative minutes showing how porn images are constructed (“We use the latest equipment,” smiles the photographer, his subjects a bare-breasted woman and a slick-shirted cowboy).
But if these orchestrated “bits” are tedious, others make Flynt’s political arguments rather scathingly. His lawyer Paul Cambria recalls the publicity surrounding the 25-year sentence in Cincinnati, and Flynt’s opportunistic response, producing a “brochure” that argued that the Vietnam War was more obscene than “voluptuous women.” The film hammers home this point, showing an awkward archival moment for prosecutor Simon Leis Jr. (“You can’t talk about good dirty fun when you’re attacking every institution of this country through the magazine,” including, by his measure, Santa Claus), unable to come up with an answer to a reporter’s query, “Which is the real obscenity?”
Less clunky and more like the broadly comedic approach Hustler took for decades is the film’s use of cartoons from the magazine, some animated (Jerry Falwell in bed with Tinky Winky, with post-coital cigarette smoke wafting). Flynt acknowledges his own brief and rather infamous flirtation with “religion,” via Ruth Carter Stapleton (“I got over all that,” he says now, “Religion has caused more harm than any other idea since the beginning of time”). As it tracks Flynt’s search for a means to make a consequential protest, the film does not note his diagnosis with bipolar disorder, and neither does it mention his disowned daughter Tonya Flynt-Vega, a Christian anti-pornography activist who has accused him of molesting her as a child.
It does, however, culminate by making what seem obvious connections between Flynt’s own defense of the First Amendment and the current administration’s efforts to curtail it and other rights (say, habeas corpus). The film illustrates his characterizations of Donald Rumsfeld (“He oughta be in chains” is followed by the former Secretary of Defense’s “Henny Penny, the sky is falling” performance) and George Bush (Flynt’s pronouncement, “He screwed up everything he touched, I can’t believe in my wildest dreams that we elected such an idiot as our president” cuts to the YouTubed clip of W giving the finger to a news camera).
The emphatic montage that cuts together all manner of tabloid distractions (Chandra Levy, 9/11, Debra Lafave, Timothy McVeigh, Enron, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Larry Craig, John Karr, Bill O’Reilly, Imus, and “Mission Accomplished”) certainly makes his case that “The press should be totally ashamed of themselves.” Flynt doesn’t take any responsibility for the descent of pop culture into sleaze, and he looks back nostalgically on the days when news was separate from entertainment. “Here is your problem with mainstream media,” he says, “It’s corporate.” If his insight is not singular, it is true.