The twentieth anniversary of Miloš Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt seemed as good an excuse as any to visit America’s most notorious smut peddler. A brief refresher for those unfamiliar with his tale: In 1974, Larry Flynt launched Hustler as a clever way to promote his string of successful strip clubs in Ohio. His concept was hardcore sex for the working man. Playboy and Penthouse were too rarefied and fussy, he thought. What real men wanted was pure, unadulterated filth, with a side of straight talk, calling out the country’s blowhards and hypocrites. His hunch was right, and it made him exceedingly rich, though the forces of censorship would ensure he spent the better part of the next two decades in court on various libel and obscenity charges.
Flynt shares his feelings with the Justices, U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, D.C., 1984
During one such trial in Georgia, in 1978, a white supremacist upset over a Hustler pictorial featuring an interracial couple shot Flynt with a sniper rifle, leaving him paralyzed. Flynt got hooked on prescription painkillers, watched the only woman he had ever loved become a junkie (she drowned in their bathtub), and spent several years holed up in his Beverly Hills mansion, before finally getting sober. In 1988, the Supreme Court overturned a prior judgment against him by the televangelist Jerry Falwell, who had sued him for a parody ad he ran in Hustler suggesting the good reverend lost his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse.
Today, Larry Flynt Publications occupies several floors of a black-glass skyscraper on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, where the modernist motif stops at the lobby. Imagine a mahogany-paneled law firm in Dallas, Texas, circa 1985, add several hundred large oil paintings of indiscernible provenance, gilded ceilings, giant silk flower arrangements, and enough Louis XVI side chairs, stained-glass Tiffany lamps, and marble-topped credenzas to fill a Hollywood prop house, and you’ll get the general gist of Flynt’s aesthetic. All of the men on the executive floor are dressed in suits and ties, and the women look equally chaste. Tastefully bound copies of Hustler, Beaver Hunter, and Barely Legal provide the only hint as to what goes on here.
Flynt’s private suite is enormous—1,200 square feet, at least—forcing guests to walk an endless strip of deep-pile carpet to reach his massive desk. He is seated in his famous gold wheelchair, flanked by 180-degree views of the city. At seventy-three, Flynt speaks slowly, barely above a whisper, and after a few awkward exchanges, he summons me to his side of the desk so we can hear each other. Arms folded, his bodyguard looks on from across the room.
It’s been twenty years since Miloš Forman turned your life into a movie. Was that your proudest moment?
No, not really, but it put my story in some sort of context. Everybody knew the name, but nobody knew what my life was like. I tell Woody [Harrelson] he played me better than I play myself.
How are you feeling about the First Amendment these days?
You know, we live in a culture where we take our civil rights and individual liberties for granted. They can be taken away from you just as easily as you gained ’em. A demagogue like Trump can do it. We’ve got a pretty solid democracy, but the first thing a demagogue’s gonna do when he gets into power is go after the First Amendment. You control speech, you control the people.
I take it you’re not a fan.
[laughs] First time I ever seen anybody similar to Trump was a carnival barker in New Orleans. That’s the guy who stands on the sidewalk outside the strip club and tries to get people to come in. Then, a few months ago, I was watching this documentary on Mussolini and realized he and Trump have the exact same mannerisms. They talk the same way. You can see that he fits the profile of an out-of-control person. Best thing Hillary’s got going for her is that she’s not nuts. Trump is.
You’re from the backwoods of eastern Kentucky. Why do you think he’s so popular in those parts?
There’s always a certain segment of society that believes the government’s screwing ’em, that it’s one big conspiracy—them rednecks that ride Harleys and drive pickup trucks and always have a Budweiser in their hands. So, you have about a third of the country that’s influenced by that type of rhetoric. Thankfully, that’s not enough to get yourself elected, which is why it’s gonna be a washout in November.
Trump lies every five minutes and then doubles down on his lies. But what’s amazed me more than anything else is that the press has been complicit in it. They let him get away with it. Those Sunday shows are important shows. They reach the whole nation. If I owned one of those networks and they brought a guy on there that lied like Trump, he wouldn’t be back on anymore. It’s one thing to have an opinion. It’s another thing to just outright lie. And I know why the networks do it—they do it for the ratings. But that’s not good enough. Trump is such a narcissist, such a liar, I don’t even know that he’s conscious of every lie he tells. He’s really a sick puppy.
You’re the last of the big-name pornographers. How’s business?
It’s good. We’ve been expanding our retail chain of stores pretty dramatically in the last year, and I’m also in the broadcast television business. A lot of people aren’t aware that I’m one of the largest content providers for cable TV in the world. We create the adult programming for most of cable television. Then, there’s publishing, which, of course, doesn’t produce the revenue that it used to. But it was a damn good ride.
The GOP made fighting the spread of porn a part of its official platform this year, calling it a “public health crisis.” Are they wrong?
I think the more at ease people become with their sexuality, the better it is for everyone. Sex is a physiological and psychological wonder. It’s one of the greatest assets we’ve got. It’s the strongest desire we have, other than the desire for survival, so you’d think that if something was so important to us, we’d make every effort we could to understand it a little bit better. And I think the problem is people don’t understand it. There’s too many taboos, too much guilt. People have been controlled through the centuries by the government repressing their sexuality. The church has had its hand on our crotch for two thousand years. I think they figure if they can control our libido, they can control us. But that genie’s out of the bottle. People have gotta have a release valve, or they’ll implode.
You grew up in poverty and had a pretty rough childhood. How did you get from the Kentucky holler to here, sitting atop a skyscraper with your initials on it?
Ever since I can remember, I rebelled against any type of authority. I was always curious, and I always challenged everything, whether it was religion or politics or the legal system. I never conformed to any of the social phenomena I was exposed to. You gotta remember, where I was born, my first experience with church was the snake worshippers. You’d go into church and they’d roll on the floor and play with rattlesnakes, which wasn’t really conducive to expanding my interest in religion. But I don’t really know how I got here. Early on, I guess I tried to develop some philosophies for myself. You have to profit from other peoples’ mistakes because you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself. That’s one of ’em, and it’s a good philosophy to have. Knowing the difference between education, knowledge, and wisdom is another. Education will give you knowledge, but you get wisdom from your capacity for knowledge. A lot of people don’t have the capacity for knowledge. I’ve always been like a sponge. Anything I didn’t know I wanted to know more about.
Was there anyone that looked out for you or guided you along?
Did any of the guys you grew up with amount to anything?
Nobody. My father was an alcoholic like everybody else. I don’t think I ever saw him sober until he was sixty years old. My brother never really aspired to doing more than just having a job. I was like all them until I went into the Navy. I never went to high school, and I realized right away that not having a formal education was going to seriously limit me in life. Thankfully, I had plenty of time in the Navy to take correspondence courses and do a lot of reading. I was always interested in biographies of successful people. If you’re doing something because you want to learn, you’re gonna learn a hundred times more than a kid at school who’s doing it because he has to. Those four years in the Navy were really great for me for that reason.
You were hooked on prescription opiates long before it was a national epidemic. Have you been following that unfolding catastrophe?
I have, and there are a lot of things at play here. There’s greed among the cartels, there’s greed among the so-called legitimate drug manufacturers, and there’s no doctors in this country that know how to deal with pain management. See, I was in a lot of pain after I was shot and I know what it’s like to be addicted to opiates and to deal with pain. Doctors just take the easy way out by writing those prescriptions. They get people hooked on ’em, and they wind up OD’ing. So, the government needs to play a larger role in this. They put a drug lord or two in jail every once in a while, but the pharmaceutical companies they let run wild. They’re the ones that make the real money.
You were also a victim of gun violence before it was a major issue.
That’s for damn sure. I think we’ve got way too many guns out there.
You’ve lived quite the life, Larry. Any major regrets?
I wish I’d worn a bulletproof vest when I went on trial in Georgia. That’s the only regret I have.