Nadia Szold’s documentary Larry Flynt for President was scheduled to have its premiere last year. But COVID put the kibosh on that. In the interim, the subject of the film, free speech crusader and Hustler Magazine founder Larry Flynt, died on Feb. 10 of this year. The film will now be shown on June 12 at the Tribeca Festival. Zack Kopp spoke last year with Nadia Szold about the film, the hypocrisies of Reagan’s America and the debacle of Trump, which Larry Flynt may have prophesied.
(Author’s Note: This interview was conducted right before the pandemic and lockdown, which resulted in the film’s debut being postponed for the length of one year, during which time Flynt passed away from heart failure in Los Angeles on February 10, 2021, at the age of 78, and Trump was deposed. Larry Flynt for President will have its screening at TriBeca on Saturday June 12)
Larry Claxton Flynt founded Hustler Magazine in 1974. As an unabashed pornographer who didn’t have to worry about offending advertisers, he used his soapbox to reinvent media. The epitome of pulling oneself up from the dregs to the heights, he came of age in an area of trenches near a coal mine in Kentucky.
By 1984, with his media enterprises a resounding success, Flynt felt he was perfectly positioned to run for office on the Republican Party ticket as an act of satire and rebellion against Ronald Reagan’s America. He also felt that he had to run, because, as he told an interviewer, “I will be the first man elected president of the United States from prison.”
Accordingly, in an effort to boost his chances, Flynt zeroed in on a member of Pres. Reagan’s foreign relations advisory board, Alfred Bloomingdale. Bloomingdale’s mistress, Vicki Morgan, allegedly hosted sex parties for prominent White House officials, and Flynt hired investigators to film her. This surveillance resulted in an apparent video recording of Reagan getting doggied by a woman wearing a strap-on, which tape has since disappeared. “There’s gonna be some checkbook journalism like you’ve never seen,” said Flynt at the time, promising further tapes implicating the whole crew. This phrase refers to the practice of paying large amounts of money for exclusive rights to material for newspaper stories, especially personal ones.
Reassembled from hitherto unseen footage from his campaign, plus other footage of Flynt and associates, the archival documentary Larry Flynt for President is currently in post-production, and will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June. Like most public gatherings, this annual platform for surfacing talent was recently postponed on account of the coronavirus but should be coming soon or going virtual.
Director, producer and writer Nadia Szold began working in theater in her teens in New England. In 2001, she founded a company called Cinema Imperfecta out of her apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Her Hope & Anchor, Thievery, The Persian Love Cake and Some Kinda Fuckery were the first short films produced and directed under this banner in Paris and New York. Szold earned a degree from Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School. This institution specializes in the “Art of Guerrilla Filmmaking and Lock-Picking,” its curriculum covering the “athletic”, some might say opportunistic, tactics required by self-funded, independent filmmakers, investigative and otherwise, tricks like creating one’s own shooting permits to neutralize bureaucracy, for example. Szold’s second feature, Mariah, starring Dakota Goldhor and Evan Luison Louison, filmed in Mexico during the rise of vigilante groups reclaiming cartel-controlled regions, made extensive use of these resourceful techniques.
“There’s nothing more encouraging than a raucous audience of college students laughing and hollering at a test screening,” Szold says. “We screened a rough cut for around 70 students, the majority having never heard of Larry Flynt. If the film entertains and provokes intelligent questions from kids, you’re gonna be OK.
In terms of opposition? I like to live by the motto illegitimi non carborundum, Latin for ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down.’ There are always battles, and the marathon nature of making an archival documentary can be exhausting. It’s a labor of love. I often thought while making it that if Larry and Althea [Larry Flynt’s wife] didn’t have soul, then what would’ve been the point? I could never have spent that much time thinking about people I didn’t respect or wasn’t fascinated by.”
A snippet of the Reagan speech about making America great again appears. The technique of using a rolling screen to switch scenes is masterful. A clip of Reagan dancing with his wife, the screen rolls, and it’s Flynt with water-weights in a pool after the shooting, with his voice, “I think it was the FBI or the CIA got me, one.”
In terms of opposition? I like to live by the motto illegitimi non carborundum, Latin for ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down.’
Larry’s late fourth wife, Althea Flynt (née Leasure; November 6, 1953 – June 27, 1987) took charge after Larry’s subsequent near-fatal crippling shooting in Georgia in 1978 and the multiple bouts with bipolar disorder which led to his campaign for President of the United States in 1984. “If you dissent too loudly, they will kill you,” he said later. “There’s a lot of truth to that. Well, they tried. I’m still here.” Althea died on June 27, 1987, at age 33 after drowning in the bathtub at the couple’s Bel-Air mansion. She is buried in the Flynt family cemetery plot, located on Lakeville in Salyersville, Kentucky. In pain after the shooting, Flynt consented to having those nerves in his back carrying pain from his legs cut, sacrificing his dream of ever walking again for a pain-free existence. Flynt’s heavy dependence on painkillers before this operation coincided with his wife’s eventually fatal slide into opiate addiction. “I’m responsible for my wife’s death, and that’s a heavy burden to carry,” he said.
Althea was Hustler’s first life-size centerfold. She married Flynt in 1976. After being made Publisher/Editor of Hustler shortly thereafter, she kept the magazine afloat during Larry’s “born again” experience. During this time of personal tumult, the magazine’s contents reflected the change in its publisher’s character, featuring nude women strapped to glass crosses and scripture and verse.
It was around this time that Flynt had a psychotic bipolar manic episode in 1977, which he described to Rudy Maxa of the Washington Post in 1978:
“I promised to give up my wife for Him. I promised to see myself castrated, too look down and see myself with no sexual organs and look up and say, ‘Yes, God, it’s okay, if that’s Your will, that’s fine.’ I spoke in tongues. There were animals eating at my neck, like baboons and monkeys, gnawing at me. He told me my calling: to bring peace on earth. And He told me there had been a distortion of His Word, which confirmed my thing on religions but only one God. Then I had to pray for my wife, Althea – He was taking Althea away from me, a natural death or an accident – oh, how I had to pray. Then I asked Him about Lenny Bruce and I got the feeling Lenny was in hell so I prayed and prayed and prayed for Lenny. But it seemed like He only reached down and picked up half of Lenny. I remember saying something like ‘Did you get him, did you get all?’ and then I looked very close up at Jesus and He was holding Lenny in His arms . . .”
From Snidely Whiplash to Larry Flynt to Donald Trump, from cartoons to porn to game shows, the billionaire bully archetype is a recurring theme in modern American sociopolitical history, and the timing is optimal for a film documenting the overlapping of that trope into the realm of politics. In this case, however, it happened by accident.
Says Szold, “I was literally inside Flynt’s archives on 8484 Wilshire when Trump announced his run for presidency. I thought the timing couldn’t have been better and that we had an urgency to get the film out before the 2016 election, when, inevitably, Trump would lose and drift back into oblivion. Clearly, that didn’t happen, and I actually didn’t get any serious offers for funding until after Trump won and it sunk in that this would be the new normal.”
At first glance, the two archetypes would seem to have a lot in common. Screw Magazine publisher Al Goldstein said, “Larry Flynt only knows he’s alive when he sees himself in the media.” Goldstein also compared Larry Flynt to Humpty Dumpty, a comparison also frequently used on Trump.
Both Larry Flynt and Donald Trump battered their way into the political arena by sheer market share as opinionated billionaires from beyond the inner circle, Flynt with his skin mags as a bona fide and Trump his reality show(s).
“Both are bombastic, take-no-prisoners loud-mouths who epitomize a kind of ‘80s porno-capitalism,” says Szold. “Shock-jocks of politics who use their savvy of the press to get attention and keep it on them. But they couldn’t be further apart. First of all, Larry Flynt came from extreme poverty and is an actual self-made man. His first memory is that of his father shooting a shotgun at him and his ma as they ran over a grassy hill in the holler of rural Kentucky. His parents split and he was raised by his hard-working mother. Another time he was shot at was in 1978 at 36 years old by a white supremacist offended by an interracial spread in Hustler. That time he was hit, and it left him paralyzed from the waist down. This is all very different from someone who claims he could shoot someone dead on 5th Avenue and his constituents would still love him.”
Despite having run for President as a Republican, Flynt was staunchly opposed to current political trends, having famously offered $10M for incriminating video or pics of Donald Trump, apparently without success (so far). “You’ll have to ask him if anything came of that,” Szold said before Flynt’s death in February. “Larry Flynt is a progressive, who, in 1983, when he launched his campaign for president, was using his voice as a citizen to protest the direction that Reagan was taking the country in. He saw that Reagan was gutting social programs . . . grossly favoring the rich, purporting the myth of trickle-down economics (a theory, which, ironically originated as satire at the turn of the century). Now we are premiering in the midst of another general election, and the parallels have shifted. Incumbent Trump is much more similar to then-incumbent Ronald Reagan. Can Larry then be compared to Bernie Sanders? I don’t think so. Sanders is earnest. Larry’s a rascal.”
In 1983, he was imprisoned. “The Springfield Medical Center exists for one reason and one reason only: to get rid of people they don’t want in society,” said Szold. Flynt arranged a series of scandalous events in the small Missouri town where he was imprisoned to draw the attention of the press away from himself. In one loud public caper, conducted by outside agents, he successfully inverted the town’s moral valance by offering drugs and sex and cash to the all the most ostensibly high-minded citizens.
“Flynt always dangled the carrot which everyone, including myself, saw as the key to whatever the next step was,” remembers Alan Graham, an assistant to Larry Flynt. “like the character Guy Grand in Terry Southern’s satirical novel The Magic Christian.”
Southern was one of the hangers-out at Flynt’s mansion, along with Dennis Hopper—with whom he was reportedly collaborating on a screenplay about the Doors in an upstairs room—American Indian Movement activist Russell Means, Tim Leary, Norman Mailer, G. Gordon Liddy, and others.
Flynt’s presidential run in 1984 is characterized by its mischievous vitality, a detour in typically staid political history akin to Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, on the Freak Power platform. Both men were exceptional outsiders attempting to take part in politics, fellow disrupters at different points on a common bandwidth. Neither bid for office was successful.
“..I actually didn’t get any serious offers for funding until after Trump won and it sunk in that this would be the new normal.”
In 1988, Flynt won a lasting victory against state censorship against Jerry Falwell, whom he befriended, along with Ruth Stapleton Carter, during his “born again” phase. Falwell accused Flynt of slandering his mother in a parody advertisement depicting Falwell as an incestuous drunk. The smear was triggered by Falwell’s statement that people who get AIDS deserved it, as well as Falwell’s close association with Pres. Reagan. Given Falwell’s notoriety as one of the leading televangelists of the day, plus the fact the piece was clearly marked as a parody, not once but twice, the court lacked sufficient reason to deny the First Amendment protection to speech that is critical of public officials and public figures, ruling 8-0 in favor of HUSTLER, and establishing a legal standard. “Freedom of expression is absolute.”
Nadia Szold understands the timeless moral and ethical significance of Larry Flynt’s life as a contrarian. “In James Agee’s prologue to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he writes, ‘Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.’ Hopefully Larry is still a far-cry from official acceptance. And sugar coating him or making him Hollywood like-able was never my intent in making the film.”
Is Larry Flynt more likely to love or hate this film about his run for presidency, documenting a far less ordered stage in his jagged personal history as pornographer, free speech crusader, and Senate hearing attendee?
“I really can’t say,” says Szold prior to Flynt’s death. “I’m sure there will be moments he winces at. He’s a different man than he was back in the early 80’s. But more than anything I think he’ll just laugh.” Any unexpected revelations in store? “Of course!” Szold said. “And in Larry Flynt fashion, no less.”
Like publishing a pornographic ad about your mother when you piss him off. Or wearing a FUCK THIS COURT shirt to his trial. A blatantly unprecedented gesture compelling passionate reaction from onlookers. “We are now finalizing the film, with the last color session and watch-down happening Wednesday. It’s all very exciting, and the film has come together beautifully thanks to the talented people I’ve been working with.”