By Drew Taylor | The Playlist September 9, 2013 at 7:37PM
When it comes to men's magazines (the kind with nude girls in them and not the ones, say, stuffed with muscle cars or expensive suits), Playboy is always portrayed as the classier affair, one modeled on sleek modernity, while Penthouse is seen as an altogether more vulgar enterprise. This was summed up by the publishing titans behind the magazine: Playboy's Hugh Hefner had a trademark pipe and smoking jacket, while Bob Guccione of Penthouse had an open shirt overflowing with chest hair, a jangling wreath of gold chains around his neck and a cigarette, always dangling from his fingers or mouth. What the new EPIX documentary "Filthy Gorgeous: The Story of Bob Guccione" exposes, is that for all the smutty excesses, Guccione was a tenacious fighter for free speech, one who broke more taboos than the bunny ever did.
As far as the format goes, 'Filthy Gorgeous' is pretty traditional (in a way that Guccione would probably snort out, had he not died after a long battle with cancer at the age of 79), following the peaks and valleys of the man's life with a funky retro soundtrack, talking head interviews, and archival footage. It follows the birth of the magazine, one that Guccione launched, after a career doing everything from palm reading to editorial cartoons, when he noticed Playboy was outselling every other men's magazine in England. Guccione's idea was to tailor a similar magazine, with scantily clad women and what he considered highbrow editorial content, specifically for British readers.
In vintage footage of Guccione driving around London in a convertible, he said that he tried to garner interest for the magazine by carrying around a couple of issues of Playboy. "Imagine this but with the word Penthouse on the cover," he would instruct potential investors. "But nobody had that kind of imagination."
The initial issues of Penthouse were so scandalous that they were debated in parliament, with some asking for Guccione to be deported. For his part, the publisher aggrandized himself as one of the leaders of the mid-'60s sexual revolution while coming across, like the magazine, as a crasser, less polished version of Hugh Hefner. (Bob's son described Playboy as adopting a more "bubblegum" style while Penthouse featured Guccione's painterly eye.)
But all the while, Guccione was pushing the boundaries, even while his public notoriety rose. He took the magazine to America, operating out of a huge, privately owned home in Upper Manhattan that he turned into a Roman palace, furnished with Italian tiles, priceless paintings and Judy Garland's gold piano, and caught up with the publishing juggernaut that is Playboy. While he copied the format that Playboy had laid out, he was unhappy maintaining the norms.
Penthouse was the first magazine of its kind to show pubic hair, a shocking taboo at the time. What's fascinating about the interviews at the time was seeing Guccione taking a stance on the matter that could be seen as almost feminist. "To me there's nothing more beautiful than a woman's body," he said at the time. He then cited how for centuries, female genitals has been hidden or obscured. A photographer recounts the moment that Hefner saw Guccione's first editorial that showcased a woman's public hair—he was shocked, disgusted… and probably a little jealous that he hadn't thought of it first. (It's like the story that's often retold of Brian Wilson hearing "Strawberry Fields Forever" for the first time and thinking, they beat me to it.) Shortly thereafter, Hefner said in the pages of Time that readers would "never" see pubic hair in Playboy… nine months later it appeared for the first time and has been a staple for the magazine ever since (taking into account personal grooming habits, of course).
Not all of Guccione's attempts at breaking through paid off, though. When he published indecent photos of Vanessa Williams, who was then the first African American Miss America winner, she was not only dethroned but public opinion of the magazine plummeted. (The documentary, unfortunately, dodges the race issue of the controversy, instead focusing on the untold sales that single issue generated.) Similarly, the documentary recounts the folly of "Caligula," the X-rated epic motion picture that was supposed to be the beginning of a number of films Guccione produced. Another infamous boondoggle involved a casino the publisher was planning in Atlantic City that came under FBI scrutiny and ultimately cost the man $145 million.
Still, there's something righteous and cool about Guccione. His swagger seemed earned. He took on Jerry Falwell and the religious right, and said publicly that President Reagan came after him because the fundamentalist had lost similar battles to maintain prayers in public schools and outlaw abortions. He fought for the rights of veterans returning from Vietnam, and published hard-hitting investigative pieces in the magazine that took on all manner of the establishment, exposing the duplicity and hypocrisy of many of the men who came after him.
What becomes so baffling, especially in the later parts of the documentary, is that for a man who was an avowed futurist (he started pioneering science magazine Omni with his longtime wife and creative partner Kathy Keeton and wasted millions attempting cold fusion technology) had no idea of the threat of technology: first of VHS, which replaced porn theaters, and the internet, on which an endless sea of smut could be obtained—easily and for free. As the magazine continued on, it floundered, and the extremeness found inside its pages stopped being risqué or cutting-edge, and was just filthy. The poses that the girls were in were always more provocative than you could find in Playboy. As a longtime collaborator said, "We had a whole section of the magazine dedicated to girls peeing."
Written and directed by Barry Averich, 'Filthy Gorgeous' dashes by, aided largely by personal recollections by two of Guccione's children and a myriad of former employees who still seem to be a little bit in love with him years after his death. His charm is palpable, even now, as is his crusading spirit to disrupt social norms in an intellectual and thoughtful way. But a series of bad investments and the changing tide of consumer taste was no match for the man, and years of hard living caught up with him (tellingly, he first tried a number of experimental medical procedures before finally giving in to traditional treatments). He died without many of the things that made him happy, including his expensive paintings and Keeton, who had died many years earlier.
There's an inclination to wish that the documentary had gone deeper into the personal life of Guccione; he was a man who loved sex, and there's at least one passing reference to a threesome that he engaged in. But these personal relationships are rarely given much attention; this is about the man in all-caps, not the one who rarely wanted to leave the apartment and loved having intellectual conversations with friends. The range of interviewees is telling—everyone from Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw magazine, to Alan Dershowitz, noted First Amendent lawyer (who had a regular column in the magazine for many years). This is a documentary about the totemic power of Bob Guccione and how he tried to change the world, one pubic hair at a time. [B+]