Bob Guccione was such a mercurial and polarizing figure – a reclusive gold-chained aesthete whose Penthouse magazine published brave investigative reporting between painterly photo spreads of pouting baby dolls with pubic hair – that it’s dispiriting to see him subjected to this paint-by-numbers biographical documentary.
Sure, the plot points are all here, sketching a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of American self-invention at once both unique and dully predictable. So we begin in the sexually revolutionary sixties, when the London birth of Penthouse as a more cosmopolitan Playboy pushed the stolid Brits in Parliament to debate the magazine’s bad influence even before a single issue had been published.
We trace Guccione’s canny battles –with Playboy, with the U.S. government’s neglect of Vietnam veterans, with Jerry Falwell and Jim Bakker – and the ill-advised ones with his children and his own irrepressible ego, which led him to waste $17-million on a film adaptation of Caligula and $145-million pursuing an Atlantic City casino.
But director Barry Avrich is content to trot out some old friends and colleagues to pay tribute to Guccione’s genius and generous spirit, intercutting them with archival footage and old interviews with the man himself.
There are hints here of a weirder, deeper personality, but that remains elusive, covered up by a two-dimensional portrait of a filthy mind obsessed with gorgeous things.