"The People vs. Larry Flynt" opens with a scene set in rural Kentucky forty-five years ago. The title character, age nine or so at the time, and his slightly younger brother run a moonshining operation. In the shack that serves as their warehouse, the Flynt boys discover a local drunk who's guzzled much of their inventory. Larry smashes the man in the face with some sort of earthen jar. The brother asks, "Why'd you hit him?" to which Larry responds, "He was cuttin' into my profits."
Welcome to the world of Larry Flynt, thug, outlaw, and future smut king.
But since this is a Hollywood presentation, add: entrepreneur and freedom fighter. It's the story of the man who of course grew up to publish Hustler, a porn magazine so graphic it made Playboy seem Victorian. Director Milos Forman and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski present Flynt (played by Woody Harrelson) as quintessentially American in both his public roles: rags-to-riches businessman and fighter for free speech. That depiction is inaccurate, for it is so superficial as to be meaningless. Delve just a little into the character of the real-life Flynt and you find the movie's moral void. Its technical excellence aside, the film is ultimately empty and depressing because it fails to reflect truth.
Hustler debuted in the early 1970s and was an almost instant hit, its circulation quickly reaching the two-million mark. But to depict Flynt as successful without discussing the morality of his product is to say that the Exxon Valdez was a fine, fine tanker without mentioning that little problem with the spill. Men like John Malone, Ted Turner, and Bill Gates have prospered by providing goods and services that enhanced both our work and our play. Flynt made millions by meeting raunchy demand with sleazy supply.
What may be Flynt's silliest claim is that he's guilty only of "bad taste." A lot of prime time television programs are in bad taste; Hustler is flat-out disgusting, erotic in only the crassest sense. The existence of a market for it does not make Flynt a folk hero, no matter how many red-white-and-blue ads for the movie Columbia Pictures runs, and no matter how much Harrelson makes Flynt sound like Jimmy Stewart in the movie's second half, as Flynt becomes increasingly loony (my view) or fiercely dedicated to the First Amendment (the filmmakers' view).
Flynt's personal life is just as sordid as his magazine. He notices Althea Leasure (Courtney Love) when she dances at one of the strip clubs he ran before starting Hustler. He summons her to his office, and within a few minutes, they are at it on his desk. Eventually, they decide to marry, but only after agreeing that each retains the right to consort with other partners. Since Althea was bisexual and Flynt later mentions that he has sex a half-dozen times a day, presumably one can say they honored their wedding vows quite well.
That "The People vs. Larry Flynt" is rated R proves its intellectual dishonesty. Hustler was the first skin magazine to feature genitalia in its pictorials, but to avoid an NC-17 rating, no vaginas are shown in the film. The effect of this reticence is twofold: it makes Hustler seem tamer than it really is, and it makes Flynt seem more sympathetic and victimized. If there's no substantial difference between Playboy and Hustler, as Flynt's lawyer Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton) asserts, why is Flynt being prosecuted for obscenity while Hugh Hefner isn't? The answer is that there is a clear difference, but the movie doesn't tell you that.
Some of the usual suspects were involved with this project. Harrelson has the exploitative "Natural Born Killers" and "Money Train" to his (dis)credit, not to mention several years' worth of obnoxious politicking, And one of the producers is Oliver Stone, who comes through with yet another Stone conspiracy theory: After Flynt is shot in a small Georgia town where he's on trial, one of his flunkies speculates that the gunman was CIA, assigned to rub out Flynt because Hustler offered a $1 million reward for JFK's real killers.
Should Larry Flynt's freedom of expression be protected? That's a subject we can debate. But as is the wont of the nihilistic Hollywood community, they not only defend Flynt's right to be obscene, they glorify him for being obscene. When in the film's climactic scene the Supreme Court rules against Jerry Falwell in his libel suit against Flynt, it may represent a victory for the Bill of Rights (nonsense, I say), but it's also a reminder of how standards of decency plummeted between "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and Mr. Flynt's triumphant journey to our nation's capital.