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Goldstein: The Trials of the Sultan of Smut

Porn king Al Goldstein radiates his usual toxic sleaze, but also some surprising pathos in the docu "Goldstein," which focuses primarily on his hapless recent legal trials. Verite docu probably won't attract the kind of distrib interest a career overview might provide, but it offers an engaging and insightful portrait of a curmudgeonly character who's not about to walk quietly into the sunset.

With:
With: Al Goldstein, Larry Flynt, Ron Jeremy, Jimmy Breslin, Ellis Hennican, Gersh Kuntzman, Al Lewis.

Porn king Al Goldstein radiates his usual toxic sleaze, but also some surprising pathos in the docu “Goldstein,” which focuses primarily on his hapless recent legal trials. Verite docu probably won’t attract the kind of distrib interest a career overview might provide, but it offers an engaging and insightful portrait of a curmudgeonly character who’s not about to walk quietly into the sunset.

On a boyhood errand, filmmaker James Guardino first met “sultan of smut” Goldstein during the latter’s ’70s heyday, when his multimedia empire (flagshipped by still-extant “Screw” magazine) was at zenith. Homevideo and the Internet have since drastically reduced that fiefdom. At nearly 70, the corpulent, foul-mouthed, admittedly no-longer-priapic mogul now seems mostly concerned with using “Screw” as a forum for his often childishly, offensively articulated political crusades and personal grudges.

That urge proves risky when a former assistant (never seen here, though no end of short-lived replacements are) sues him for harassing her both in person and via his mag and cable access show.

Goldstein sees everything as a First Amendment issue — a rather contemptible tactic, since he tends to wield “free speech” like a playground bully, as hurtfully as possible. (When things don’t go as hoped, he calls the trial judge “a Nazi lowlife,” and compares his own plight to “a black in Mississippi in the ’60s” — and those are just the printable examples.) With the case viewed as a wellspring of humorous “light news,” he at first delights in renewed media attention, but dismays his lawyer and supportive pals (including erstwhile “Grandpa Munster” Al Lewis) by springing vulgar publicity stunts.

Goldstein is vividly glimpsed as both self-destructive and afflicted with a martyr complex. His conflicted impulses are crystallized toward an only son (a non-participant here), who’s just about to graduate from Yale Law School and is embarrassed by dad’s notoriety. While clearly pained by their semi-estrangement, Goldstein only makes things worse in public tantrums, calling Jr. a “fag,” his all-purpose slur. But then, what can you expect from a man whose waterfront Florida mansion has a giant one-finger-salute statue pointed toward passing boat traffic?

There’s certainly still room for a docu that encompasses Goldstein’s not-inconsiderable role in the legal and cultural aspects of the ’60s-’70s Sexual Revolution. Pic touches on that legacy just enough to explicate matters for viewers who haven’t heard of him before.

Lively assemblage does not stint on Goldstein’s occasional, irrational ragings toward the filmmaker himself — being a friend to Al clearly requires the thick-skinned patience of Job.

Goldstein: The Trials of the Sultan of Smut

Production: A Lancaster Pictures production. Produced by James Guardino, Joseph Iberti, Barry Shils, Thomas Russo. Executive producers, Desiree and Robert Cassera. Directed by James Guardino.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Clarence Ting, Guardino; editor, Sara Thorson; music supervisor, Patrick Runkle; sound, Cary Gibaldi. Reviewed at San Francisco Doc Fest, May 14, 2004. Running time: 73 MIN.

With: With: Al Goldstein, Larry Flynt, Ron Jeremy, Jimmy Breslin, Ellis Hennican, Gersh Kuntzman, Al Lewis.

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