When Bob Guccione Jr. first heard that a Canadian director was angling to make a documentary about his infamous father’s life and times, he took it in stride. “I had no ambivalence whatsoever, nor fear,” says the 57-year-old publishing impresario, whose decision to follow in his father’s magazine-founding footsteps led to an 18-year estrangement. “For one thing, what more could be said about my dad that hadn’t been hurled at him already? He wasn’t a shrinking violet when alive, and I’m guessing any criticism matters even less to him now.”
There may indeed be some arched eyebrows when Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story premieres at TIFF, just as there were when Milos Forman made a movie about Larry Flynt. Turning a multimillionaire pornographer into a culture warrior is a good way to make people angry. But even if Barry Avrich’s film doesn’t exactly line up a murderer’s row of skeptics to take shots at the late Penthouse honcho, it’s hardly an unblemished portrait. The testimonies to Guccione’s ingenuity and self-styled brand of intellectual integrity – poaching the format for his pornographic periodical from Playboy and then going even higher-brow on the articles in between – are balanced out by accounts of his self-destructive business practices.
“Once he had all that success, he started buying things,” says Avrich, who is by now an old hand at profiles of media moguls (his last movie was a documentary about Harvey Weinstein). “I think that he made huge mistakes. He put a lot of money into magazines and things that didn’t work. When his people told him that [Penthouse] was in trouble, his response was to say: ‘That can’t be right.’ He sort of became the porn equivalent of the lion in winter.”
The most compelling material in Filthy Gorgeous details Guccione’s clash with the religious right at the end of the 1980s – a transformative period in American pop-cultural history where a man routinely described as a sleaze could also be lionized as a staunch defender of the First Amendment. “Unlike Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt, [Guccione] really took on causes,” Avrich observes. “Penthouse became an advocate for Vietnam veterans’ rights, it railed against Watergate. Guccione bankrolled lawyers to go after the Meese report [on pornography]. He thought that censorship was going back to McCarthyism. He was a crusader.”
Since it was assembled in the years after Guccione’s death, Filthy Gorgeous relies heavily on archival footage of Bob Sr. who was rarely photographed without his trademark gold chains (he styled himself into a caricature of high-rolling largesse). But there are crucial present-tense contributions from his first-born son. In candid interview segments, Guccione Jr. describes falling out with his father over the direction of the seminal alternative-rock magazine Spin, which he created in 1985 and had to relaunch two years later after the older man shut it down for financial reasons. However, the movie pulls back from including too much material on Spin, which is just how Guccione Jr. wanted it.
“This is my dad’s story, not mine,” he says. “The only relevant part of that chapter at the end of the sturm und drang, is that we loved each other very much and reconciled years before he died and were able to spend a lot of fun time together. We never talked about it, except once my dad said, over dinner: ‘All that wasted time.’ And I said: ‘Well, we’re here now.’”
Guccione Jr. says that he hopes that Avrich’s film will clear up some of the lingering misconceptions about his father, and that he did his part to set some of the filmmaker’s facts straight in the process. “My dad was a lot of the things he was criticized for,” he says. “But he was never just that. He was never shallow. He was a complex and, in some ways, tortured man. He made mistakes but, obviously, on aggregate he was right more than wrong. He achieved great success, lived a remarkable life and positively impacted a multitude of lives, from artists he helped and charities he anonymously supported, to Vietnam veterans, whose cause he championed for decades. He never really hurt anyone – Vanessa Williams might disagree – although he stepped on a lot of toes and kicked more than a few people’s backsides in his magazines.
“Barry promised a fair movie that included the warts, and he delivered that. My father was a flawed genius. We’re all flawed, but we’re not all geniuses.”