More than any role as a crusade hero or a perverted villain, Flynt can best be understood as an expression of pure self; for his part, he helped to show the extent to which this id is and is not restricted by the rule of law in liberal society.
Flynt was born in eastern Kentucky in the early 1940s to a childhood of poverty, death (his younger sister died aged four), and divorce. His early life reads like a rogue: he smuggled moonlight, he ran away from home, he used forged documents to enlist in the army at the age of 15, he was part of a USS Enterprise Crew who picked up John Glenn’s capsule.) Flynt eventually settled for a nightclub life and bought his first bar in 1965 at the age of 23. By the end of that decade, he and his brother Jimmy had opened a number of “hustler” clubs in all over Ohio with live nude dancers.
These clubs became the magazine of the same name in 1974 – and with it Flynt’s legend and his fortune. Hustler was used as an antiplayboy: blatant where playboy was taught, self-parodic, where playboy Constructs his “brand” in painstaking detail work and the remotest possible from a “lifestyle” magazine. In so far as Hustler had something to say about American masculinity, it channeled a youthful, compulsive obsession with sex and a thirst for taboo arousal.
HustlerDesire above all to provoke led to extreme, sometimes surprising results: there was the shameless publication of paparazzi photos sunbathing with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1975, which gave the magazine its name, and then, just months later, a surprise humane, complete picture series with a transgender woman.
Flynt’s devotion to pushing a button took him to court – many, many times. In 1976, he was sentenced to potentially decades of imprisonment for profanity, but the sentence was overturned for misconduct by the prosecutor. For posting a derogatory cartoon with his business rival, penthouse Publisher Bob Guccione, Flynt found himself before the Supreme Court for the first time engaging in the aforementioned verbal abuse of the judges while wearing a T-shirt that read “F — This Court”. (The opinion of the court in Keeton v Hustler Magazine, Inc., established the precedent that the courts of a state have jurisdiction over the publisher of defamatory content that is distributed in that state, and Hustler was eventually convicted of paying Guccione’s then-girlfriend $ 2 million in damages.)
In Flynt’s most famous case, 1988 Hustler Magazine versus Falwell, Rev. Jerry Falwell sued the magazine for writing – as part of an apparently parodic “commercial” – that he had sex with his mother in an outhouse. The court unanimously decided that Hustlers parody was a protected speech, setting a precedent that “emotional distress” is not a sufficient cause for injury to public figures.
Less than a decade later, the Falwell case served as the dramatic linchpin for the 1996 Miloš Forman film, which cemented Flynt’s legacy not only as the undemanding Hugh Hefner, but also as a player in the centuries-old American free speech debate. Forman said he made this film “out of admiration for the beauty and wisdom of the American Constitution, which enables this country to rise to its best when provoked by the worst”. He was undoubtedly sincere, but the end product is inevitably hagiographic, failed over a simplified script depicting Flynt as heroic foil for characters like Charles Keating – the years before he became infamous as the face of the Reagan era Savings and credit crisisHe made a name for himself as a crusade anti-porn activist.
Flynt was a self-proclaimed liberal who spent most of his adult life as a brake on American politics, from his role in the Livingston scandal to one Vanity gubernatorial campaign in California to his hunt for incriminating material about then President Donald Trump. But he was not an ideological actor; he was an opportunist. As with pornography, at one point it was in the political realm that he could find money and attention.
He pursued both interests equally: without taste, judgment or shame. We remember Larry Flynt so much for his intrinsic qualities as for what he thinks of the rest of us – the threadbare underground market demand that made him a millionaire; the cultural insult we experience every day but know we must tolerate it; and the First Amendment, to which he contributed in his own little way. Flynt was an all-American creature, someone you cannot imagine in any other society. As inconvenient as it may be to acknowledge it, he has also revealed through his life and work that it could be even more difficult to imagine an America that would not tolerate him.