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The smut peddler who cares: Our 2004 interview with Larry Flynt

The smut peddler who cares: Our 2004 interview with Larry Flynt

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Editor's note: This story was originally published Aug. 15, 2004, in the Post-Dispatch. Larry Flynt, who died Feb. 10, 2021, was visiting to sign his new book, "Sex, Lies & Politics," at Left Bank Books. Joseph Paul Franklin, who was executed in Missouri in 2013, is the white supremacist who tried to murder Flynt and ended up paralyzing him. 


The smut peddler who cares

That's how porn king and free-speech advocate Larry Flynt bills himself. His new book, "Sex, Lies & Politics: The Naked Truth," attempts to focus on the latter.

Give this to Larry Flynt: He's stayed on message for at least 30 years. He sugarcoats nothing. From the time he started Hustler magazine until his latest entry into "politainment," Flynt has never hidden what he is: a pornographer.

When he's called a "bottom feeder," Flynt simply agrees. His own term of endearment for himself is "smut peddler who cares."

What he dislikes, though, is holier-than-thou types who criticize others while their own baskets are full of dirty laundry. What Flynt dislikes is hypocrisy.

In "Sex, Lies & Politics: The Naked Truth" (Kensington, 263 pages, $24), Flynt may seem like yet another president-basher, but he's not that simple. Behind this new book is a man who has his own curious brand of morality and committed supporters who stand up for Flynt — not because of the way he's made his money but the way he's spent it.

As he writes in his book, "I have spent millions of dollars and years of my life in various courtrooms defending every American's right to privacy and to free speech. Every month I travel the country lecturing in defense of our Bill of Rights. . . . I used to think people wanted to hear my opinions because they were outlandish. Now I'm convinced it's because I'm one of the few people speaking out who does not censor what's on his mind."

The First Amendment unzipped

Flynt, 61, talked about what was on his mind recently in a telephone conversation from Cincinnati, sounding fatigued from his book tour. He touches down in St. Louis for a book signing Tuesday.

But Flynt won't be speaking here, just signing. And don't try to smuggle anything untoward into the event. Left Bank Books' owners say he will sign only copies of "Sex, Lies & Politics" purchased on site.

The reason he won't be speaking at Left Bank, the store's owners say, is because the store is small (Flynt says signings have drawn up to 300 people), an affordable alternative venue was not available, and Flynt's health is so-so.

That means Flynt's voice will come primarily from the book, which offers no scoops that an informed reader doesn't already know. Flynt relies to a large extent on reporting from newspapers and books, which are credited, but he also offers rumors and gossip that he wishes the mainstream media would investigate.

Accessible the book is, but not always quotable. Flynt uses colorful language. His kinder insults involve calling evangelical Christians "nuts" and members of the media "poodles" or "piranhas."

Many voters suffer from Flynt's least-favorite vice, hypocrisy. He writes, "Americans love their porn and their toys and, as a people, we're hypocrites to say otherwise. The market says it all. A smut peddler like me would not be riding in a Bentley and a private jet if Americans did not have a healthy appetite for the stuff that makes John Ashcroft chew his prayer rug in aggravation."

Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books, a store that has featured a number of Bush critics in the past year, says she and other staff did debate whether to host Flynt. They don't sell Hustler or other "men's magazines." She says she is a feminist but that there is "more than one feminist view on pornography."

Besides, Kleindienst was more interested in Flynt's credentials as a supporter of free speech. (A portion of the sales will support the local ACLU chapter.) Flynt's book, she says, looks at American politics "in a way that's very accessible. It's not intellectual or off-putting, so it can reach a wider audience." Many folks dismiss Flynt or make fun of him, but he's a high-profile guy who is "dead-on when it comes to the First Amendment."

Flynt-Clinton connection?

Flynt has fought for years over the right to publish and say what he wants. He's been using a wheelchair since 1978, when he was shot and paralyzed by a racist and serial killer who objected to Hustler's photos of a black man with a white woman. The shooter is on death row in Missouri for a Richmond Heights murder. Flynt is a multimillionaire, so the wheelchair is gold-plated.

This history - the memoir aspects of "Sex, Lies and Politics" — is probably more interesting to many readers than his analysis of what's wrong with the White House. A tenacious reader could have a lot of fun, though, comparing Flynt's account of Clinton's impeachment (he helped derail it by offering "a million dollars to anyone who can document having had an affair with a key player such as Gingrich, Lott, Armey, etc.") with those of the ex-president (who doesn't mention Flynt in "My Life") and former Rep. Bob Barr. In his new book, "The Meaning of IS," Barr writes, "Larry Flynt may have been the public face of this campaign to destroy anyone who dared criticize Bill Clinton, but I have never believed he was operating entirely on his own."

Flynt acknowledges that people at his book signings want to know more about him than they do the book. His speech is slow and tortured, but he gamely answers any and all questions put to him, while keeping some personal answers short.

Flynt says he started the book four years ago, planning to cover the period from Clinton's impeachment through Bush's presidency.

"I was having trouble getting my arms around everything. I thought if I'm having trouble, then the layperson in America is having a great deal of trouble, too."

Critical of Washington cronyism and what he says is war profiteering, Flynt is angered by major media's reluctance to confront Bush: "All the major networks and major publications are interested in is who is going to get the next interview with Laura and George." They fear tough questions about Iraq will limit their access, he says.

At home in court

The average American layperson has access to more books than ever trying to dissect — some say tear apart — contemporary politics and culture. With rock stars throwing concerts to raise money for Democrat John Kerry and best-seller lists full of political titles, the mix has been called "politainment."

Flynt offered politainment decades ago. He started Hustler magazine in 1973 to publicize dancers in his Ohio Hustler clubs. Deciding to publish more explicit photos than Playboy helped his magazine's grosses (and some might say grossness). Flynt "made the smartest investment of my life" when he bought and published nude photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1975.

By the next year, Hustler was indicted for pandering and obscenity: "We wanted to offend people. We felt that the First Amendment afforded us the right to be offensive," he writes.

Fighting for his right to publish what he wanted meant Flynt has spent so much time in court (and two stints in prison) that it is like his "second home."

His biggest battle involved evangelist Jerry Falwell in the late 1980s. Flynt's magazine ran a parody implying Falwell had an incestuous encounter with his mother. Falwell sued for libel and emotional stress, and Flynt fought it all the way to the Supreme Court and won.

He writes, "In the years following the Supreme Court's decision, I noticed how the skits and monologues on Leno and Letterman, and even those on 'Saturday Night Live' and 'The Howard Stern Show,' were much more on the cutting-edge than they ever could have been before 1998. Celebrities, politicians — anyone in the news is made fun of all the time. It's a main staple of these programs. These shows can imitate, impersonate, put words in people's mouths. There is virtually no limit as long as they don't knowingly and maliciously make a false and hurtful statement, offered as fact."

Comedians, writers and TV hosts thank Flynt, he says. And it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the new novel by Nicholson Baker — which portrays a character wanting to assassinate President Bush — owes a nod to Flynt's court cases. (See book review on Page 8.)

Flynt says that if Bush is re-elected, he believes the president and Attorney General Ashcroft will focus domestically on curbing free speech. If so, Flynt seems willing to challenge them: "I've been focusing on that for 30 years. It doesn't worry me that much anymore."

When it comes to free speech, Flynt is an absolutist: "I feel very strongly that hate speech is protected by First Amendment," he writes. And yet he also believes in privacy, saying Jack Ryan deserved to have his divorce papers remain sealed. Ryan is the Illinois Republican who quit his campaign for the Senate after reports that his ex-wife said he forced her to go to sex clubs.

"You know as well as I do, that when people are involved in a custody fight, they will say anything," he says.

Flynt's family

When asked about his own children, he keeps answers short. Flynt has five children "by different women" and two grandchildren (he sounds a bit hesitant about the number). He admits that he's only close to one daughter who works with him in Los Angeles. "I think everyone wishes they could be a better father."

The 1996 movie made of his life, Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt," omitted most of the wives and all of the children.

Flynt comments that a lot is left out in a two-hour movie, but that everything included in the film — court battles, the shooting, sex, drugs, his wife Althea's AIDS diagnosis and drowning — is true.

"Woody Harrelson plays me better than I play myself," he says with a laugh.

His new book says that Flynt's brief conversion to Christianity — chronicled in the movie — was because he has bipolar disorder. Medication has helped him tremendously, he writes, with little elaboration.

He says he's remarried and happy. Of his money-making empire, which includes sex boutiques, Internet sites, cable channels, Hustler clubs, a casino and more, the biggest profits are in videos.

How much is he worth? Flynt's answer is as near as he comes to being coy: "I'm comfortable and happy," he says.

Flynt wouldn't estimate how much it would cost to buy his smut empire: "Because of the business that I'm in, who's got the money to buy it and who would want to buy it?"

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