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Thursday, September 11, 2008


I've never been a big Larry Flynt fan. He always struck me as an opportunistic smartass who loves to stir up trouble. After watching the 2008 documentary, LARRY FLYNT: THE RIGHT TO BE LEFT ALONE, my opinion of him has softened somewhat. He's still opportunistic, but let's face it--what smut peddler isn't? He's still a smartass, but that's his medium and he works it like a fine artist. And although he does like to stir up trouble, a lot of that trouble was laid on his own doorstep by people trying to send him to prison in 1977 for publishing a dirty magazine.

Nowadays, Larry Flynt has achieved a level of respectability that finds him giving lectures at places like Harvard. Here, we see him before a crowd composed largely of admiring liberals who might regard him with disdain if he hadn't become the poster boy for free speech over the years. His dirty magazine and its politically-incorrect contents are now reluctantly tolerated by those fascinated by his various exploits in the defense of the First Amendment and the advancement of left-wing ideology. Fortunately, you don't have to agree with his politics or be an avid reader of his colorful publication--or even particularly like the guy--to share in their fascination, which is why I found this documentary so involving.

Flynt's reminiscences during his various speaking venues are augmented by lots of old footage from his vigorous younger days, when he first gained national attention by receiving a 25-year prison sentence for obscenity. He may come off as a soft-spoken old sage now, but back then he was hell on wheels (figuratively speaking). The younger Flynt faces news cameras with fearless conviction and backs down to no one. At his sentencing, we're told, he said to the judge: "You haven't made an intelligent decision in this case, and I don't expect one now." Tales of subsequent courtroom antics over the years provide further entertainment later on, including his infamous run-ins with Reverend Jerry Falwell.

We're introduced to Flynt's young wife, Althea, who was a driving force behind "Hustler" and equally outspoken. One of the tragedies of this film is watching her swift decline after becoming addicted to heroin, leading to her death in 1987. The other is, of course, an assassination attempt on Flynt which left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Losing the ability to walk, however, did nothing to quell Flynt's fiery indignation and his ability to face down any opponent; as we see in some riveting jailhouse deposition footage, he's still the ultimate smartass.

The film documents Flynt's further exploits before the Supreme Court, as a Presidential candidate, and as an object of fear and loathing in the hallowed halls of government, where his ability to find the skeletons in certain Republican politician's closets led to the resignation of House speaker Bob Livingston. Now, seemingly a much more sedate and contemplative figure, the older Flynt is no less opinionated and passionate in his political beliefs.

I don't share many of them, and I never really bought the notion of Larry Flynt as the noble, heroic martyr for free speech, but there's no denying that he is one fascinating character with unshakable convictions. Director Joan Brooker-Marks has deftly assembled a mix of recent interview and lecture footage along with archival material to concoct a consistently interesting story which, despite the volatility of the subject, is low-key and thoughtful, and lacking the circus atmosphere of Flynt's Woody Harrelson-starring biopic.

Presented in 16x9 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, the DVD contains an informative director commentary, a trailer, some additional interview footage, and over fifteen minutes of extra material from the aforementioned deposition which is just about as irreverent as anything you'll ever see.

Like him or not, agree with his politics or not, LARRY FLYNT: THE RIGHT TO BE LEFT ALONE is a richly compelling documentary about one of the most unusual maverick figures of our time. I'm still not a fan, but I can say that I understand the guy a lot better now.

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