“Filthy Gorgeous” chronicles the life and times of Bob Guccione, late kingpin of the Penthouse adult entertainment empire. Cutting a flamboyant public figure but apparently a pretty low-key, homey personality in private, he seems at core that least interesting documentary subject — a regular nice guy — though naturally, his cultural imprint at the height of the sexual revolution remains colorful stuff. Barry Avrich’s entertaining if uninspired feature looks most apt for cable slots; it’s already slotted for a U.S. premiere Nov. 8 on Epix.
Raised in a large, supportive New Jersey Italian-American family, Guccione yearned to be taken seriously as a painter, but the need to provide for a first wife and kids led him to take an entrepreneurial leap in 1965. He started Penthouse with borrowed money — not even enough to fund a second issue if it didn’t fly. But it caused an immediate sensation in England (where he then lived), fast becoming the U.K.’s leading men’s magazine in no small part thanks to the controversy and criminal charges incurred by its now-tame “smut.” Along the way, Guccione taught himself photography, developing a trademark style of sensuous, soft-focus pinup shots.
In 1969 Penthouse entered the American market with a publicity campaign cheekily taking direct aim at seemingly unbeatable Playboy, soon beating that magazine to the punch in terms of crossing the visible-public-hair line. (Hugh Hefner swore that Playboy would never follow suit; six months later it did exactly that.)
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As the publication flourished, Guccione styled himself as the epitome of Me Decade swingerdom — unbuttoned silk shirts, multiple gold chains, et al. Meanwhile, he amassed a remarkable art collection, decorating his huge Manhattan home/office as a Roman palazzo, and entertained some of the leading minds of the era. Though voluptuous “Penthouse Pets” were omnipresent, he was no stereotypical sexist pig, giving women prime behind-the-scenes career opportunities initially unequaled by any publishing company outside Ms. Magazine.
To a large extent the brains behind the whole operation for many years was Kathy Keeton, an advertising chief (and eventual third wife) whose administrative expertise allowed Guccione to focus more on creative pursuits. These included founding numerous other mags on science, art, and other nonsexual topics. Beyond inevitable championship of free expression versus censorship, Guccione was a passionate advocate for Vietnam vets.
But the Penthouse brand was not infallible. “Caligula,” its $17 million mix of ancient history, legit movie stars and hardcore sex, couldn’t find mainstream distribution. Other bad investments included an Atlantic City casino complex that never opened yet swallowed $150 million whole. Keeton’s 1997 demise hit Guccione hard as the business declined, having failed to keep pace with the shift from print to new media. He was forced to file for bankruptcy, losing control of his remaining holdings well before dying of cancer in 2010 at age 79.
Former colleagues (and Pets) invariably speak fondly of Guccione, by all accounts a generous, loyal man of refined tastes (even if those weren’t always reflected in his most famous endeavors). But “Filthy Gorgeous” provides little insight into his four marriages, let alone why he was estranged from several of his children for long periods.
In the end, Avrich’s docu feels like a somewhat superficial, “authorized” bio that nonetheless holds attention via its surfeit of archival materials and input from diverse interviewees (though not, notably, Hefner). Pro packaging could have used a little more retro-style flash, though the vintage soundtrack choices manage that nicely.