On March 6, 1978, during a legal battle in Georgia over obscenity charges, Larry Flynt, the owner and publisher of Hustler magazine, was shot on the sidewalk, an assassination attempt that left him partially paralyzed. It didn’t take long for him to become an iconic figure in his gold wheelchair, but the shooting devastated him. It kicked-off a five-year descent into drugs, overeating, and a paranoid withdrawal from the world. By 1983, Flynt had pulled himself out of the swamp of despair, and one of the inspirations to do so is that he now had a cause. He convinced himself that either the CIA or the FBI was behind the assassination attempt. After years of legal fights over Hustler, Flynt already saw the U.S. government as his adversary; now he was convinced that it had become his mortal enemy, from President Reagan on down. He was going to get his revenge. How? By running for president, of course.
The Larry Flynt “presidential campaign,” launched in 1983, was a tawdry piece of low-life media guerrilla performance art that made the 1968 mock candidate Pat Paulsen look like Bernie Sanders. It was not a campaign — not really. It was a rolling publicity stunt, an anything-goes kamikaze assault on the very idea of government. In Flynt’s words, the campaign would be “an act of satire and rebellion against Reagan’s America.” The joke of it is that Flynt, a shrewd megalomaniac, literally thought he could win. The joke no one could possibly know at the time is that as seen today, in Nadia Szold’s lively archival documentary “Larry Flynt for President,” the Flynt campaign now looks like a trashy, penny-ante anticipation of the 2016 Donald Trump campaign — or, at least, certain aspects of it. It was a mud-slinging circus, an all-out assault on decorum in politics, though with a serious issue at its heart: Flynt’s absolutist defense of the First Amendment.
“Larry Flynt for President” covers the period in which Flynt transitioned from being a mostly-behind-the-scenes smut peddler, a dirty redneck cherub who raked in $10 million a month from his meat-grinder version of Playboy, to the damaged, marble-mouthed free-speech ringleader with a sixth sense for how to exploit himself. He made grandiose pronouncements from his wheelchair as if it were a throne. With his wife, the comely and increasingly punked-out Althea, standing by him, he became a tabloid parody of a publishing despot, but the media took the bait; Larry Flynt was good copy.
The documentary essentially deals with the period that was subject of “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” the 1996 drama written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, directed by Milos Forman, and produced by Oliver Stone, with Woody Harrelson (in one of his most audacious performances) as Flynt and Courtney Love (in her first and last great performance) as Althea. The movie, I thought, was a renegade ’90s classic — a fight-the-power courtroom comedy that saw Larry Flynt as the ultimate ironic hero. Watching it, you didn’t have to rationalize the fact that Flynt, in his magazine, was selling degraded garbage. That was the whole point: that America was about exalting the rights of someone like this.
It would have been nice to get the documentary version a few years later, as often happens when there’s a zeitgeist Hollywood movie. But no, it took 25 years. And the dramatic impact of “Larry Flynt for President” feels smaller today than it might have then. With pornography now the province of the Internet, the culture has mostly moved on from this particular brand of free-speech skirmish. But “Larry Flynt for President” tells a story so wild that the documentary plays as a succulent time machine of sordid 1980s mishegas. Flynt’s so-called presidential campaign would hinge on his ability to draw major financial backing, which he never did succeed in doing. But along the road he found a dozen ways to stir up trouble.
The oddities chronicled by the documentary include the so-called Vicki Morgan sex tapes, which Flynt tried to purchase for $100 million, claiming that he could blackmail the entire government with them (we see a blurry videotape of what’s purported to be Ronald Reagan himself in a rather compromising position, though that tape looks no more genuine than the alleged Donald Trump pee-pee tape I saw on the Internet two years ago); Flynt making an obscene shouting spectacle of himself in the Supreme Court; Flynt’s recruiting of the Native American activist Russell Means to be his vice-presidential candidate; Flynt being rolled into court on a hospital gurney to mount his surreal deposition in the case where Jerry Falwell sued him for libel, then showing up in court wearing a diaper fashioned out of the American flag; and Al Goldstein, Flynt’s New York vulgarian brother in smut (not to mention self-promotion), saying of Flynt, “He played hardball with people who played more hardball, and so he lost.” He was speaking of the government campaign to get Flynt, which dogged him for years.
How, in the end, do we judge Larry Flynt? Was he a greedy misogynist scoundrel, a latter-day yippie in porn publisher’s clothing, or a crusader for the fundamental American right to say whatever the hell you want, knowing that you have the right to say it? He was all of the above. His presidential campaign never stood a chance; even if he’d found backing, who was going to vote for the auteur of Hustler? Then again, a lot of people asked a comparable question about Trump. He proved to be a much smarter and more mainstream politician, even as he made Larry Flynt look angelic.