Larry Flynt's Wild Life: Porn, Politics and Penile Implants

Larry Flynt
Larry Flynt
 Frank W. Ockenfels 3

This story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Larry Flynt sits by the window of his sleek, black-and-gold G4 jet, with the letters “LFP” (for Larry Flynt Publications) painted on the tail, gazing out on the world 41,000 feet below, lost in thought.

Just getting here has been a mammoth task. Earlier, Flynt’s black Bentley (with a vanity license plate that reads “HUSTLR”) pulled up beside the plane at an airport in Van Nuys, Calif.; two pilots and a bodyguard eased the 70-year-old out of the car and into a specially designed, miniature wheelchair, before lifting him up the stairs (with a gold-plated ramp) and into his seat, while his regular, $17,000 gold-plated wheelchair was placed in the hold.

Despite running his empire with an iron grip, he went through all this without a word of complaint or irritation, keeping that, like so much else, to himself.

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The self-described “smut peddler”; former jailbird, amphetamine addict and bootlegger; nemesis of feminists like Gloria Steinem (who called him “the Goebbels of the war against women”); multimillionaire; thorn in the side of the arch-right; and historic defender of free speech has a lot to think about.

It has been 25 years almost to the day since the Supreme Court made “this old pornographer,” as he calls himself, part of history when it handed down a key First Amendment verdict.

In the late ’80s, televangelist Jerry Falwell sued Flynt for libel and the infliction of emotional distress caused by a Hustler cartoon implying Falwell’s first sexual encounter was with his mother. He won in a lower court. But on Feb. 24, 1988, the Supreme Court deemed that if a public figure could receive damages for distress, any kind of satire or parody was dead in the water. The case, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, now is taught in law schools.

Garry Trudeau said Larry Flynt gave him a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Flynt says, a smile suddenly breaking through his curiously expressionless face -- a bonanza for poker but strangely intimidating during even the most basic of conversations -- revealing an unexpected warmth.

Less known is that shortly after the verdict, “I was sitting in my office and my secretary called me and said, ‘Reverend Jerry Falwell is in the lobby.’ I said, ‘Send him in.’ So he walked in the door and he held up both hands and said, ‘I surrender!’ He sat down and we talked for about an hour, and then he asked me to go on a couple of speaking engagements with him, where we debated one another.” He wasn’t surprised: “Falwell was a salesman. You know, if he’d been selling peanut butter or beer, he would’ve sold it the same way he sold his religion.”

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Flynt can identify.

In a world where traditional pornography has been buffeted by piracy and the Internet, the entrepreneur, if anything, has seen his empire expand thanks to shrewd investments in 55 domestic and international adult-oriented television channels, 11 Hustler Hollywood stores, various clubs, an apparel business, a lucrative casino in Gardena, Calif., and the recently acquired adult movie distributor New Frontier Media -- which he bought for $33 million and whose chairman, Alan Isaacman, represented him before the Supreme Court.

He has some 1,500 employees and is on the brink of closing a deal to sell his 10-story office building at the intersection of Los Angeles’ Wilshire and La Cienega boulevards, which he bought for $18 million in 1984 and which could go for $85 million to $90 million today.

“I can take this and put it toward buying another casino or another operation that would fit with my broadcasting entities,” Flynt says, speaking in the slow, distinct rasp that he says is the by-product of pain medication he took for years after a 1978 shooting left him partially paralyzed from the waist down. “That depressed my respiratory system, and your respiratory system is connected a lot to your vocal cords. I speak a little sluggish as a result.”

Despite everything he has gone through in his turbulent seven decades, he seems almost stoic about his life as he and this reporter talk throughout a three-hour flight to Dallas, where he’ll inspect two sites for potential stores, his crippled legs stretched out under a dark blanket as he calmly and deliberately spoons down a bowl of cottage cheese his ever-attentive wife, Liz Berrios (No. 5, age 53), has just brought him.

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Anyone expecting the out-of-control protagonist of 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt -- who raved and ranted at judges, and who engaged in wild and irrepressible sex -- is in for a surprise.

Since being diagnosed as bipolar in the 1980s, he’s altogether more stable. “I haven’t had a manic episode in 20 years,” he says.

His life is in many ways peculiarly normal, right down to staying in for the Oscars six days after our Feb. 18 plane ride. He has seen few of the films but later lashes out at the violence of one director: “I don’t care for Quentin Tarantino’s movies. He once said he’d never make a porno movie; I don’t have a problem with that, but he has made some of the most violent movies that ever existed, and all of a sudden he’s against making a porno movie!”

Violence is a far more compelling problem to him than sex -- understandably, given his experience, though he keeps guns. “I have a couple around the house,” he says. “I support the Second Amendment but not assault weapons.”

Since laser surgery in 1987 eliminated the excruciating pain he felt following the attempted murder, when a sniper shot him from a distance near a Georgia courthouse where Flynt was engaged in an obscenity trial (the shooter never was identified or brought to trial, but white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin has claimed he did it) and since Flynt started taking lithium, he is more nuanced than the flamboyant figure of lore.

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Gone is the wild man who alleged his first sexual encounter was with a chicken; lined up 20 hookers in a row in order to fornicate with them all; called Justice Sandra Day O’Connor “a token c---”; and had an open relationship with his bisexual wife, Althea Leasure, who died of AIDS in 1987.

He still has sex, though it is limited by his physical condition. (He hasn’t seen the movie The Sessions, about a quadriplegic and a sex worker, but says, “Maybe I should.”) Now he has a penile implant, he explains. “Lots of men have them. There’s a little reservoir in the bottom part of your stomach, and you trigger it with a button inside your testicles that doesn’t show. Nothing shows.”

He makes no pretense to being faithful. Indeed, it’s notable that of the three sparkling rings he wears (including a ruby, an emerald and a seven-carat canary diamond), none is a wedding band.

“I wouldn’t be in a relationship that wasn’t open,” he insists, noting there have been other women in his life since his current marriage began 15 years ago, “but nothing serious.” Does his wife -- and former nurse -- like that lifestyle? He pauses. “She doesn’t feel that way.”

He gets up around 9 a.m., often has breakfast at favored hangouts Culina at The Four Seasons or the Beverly Hills Hotel, then works in his palatial, antiques-strewn 10th-floor office before heading home for dinner and a nap. After that, if he doesn’t go out, he stays up till around 4 a.m., reading books like Cronkite, Douglas Brinkley’s recent Walter Cronkite biography, and watching television on a 60-inch screen in his bedroom.

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An avowed “news junkie,” he consumes hours of TV, favoring MSNBC and shows such as those of Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, and reads magazines including Vanity Fair and papers such as The Washington Post, though he says he is “disenchanted” with The New York Times. “They’ve lost their compass.”

Other than quality control with his own product, he has no interest in porn and never visits the sets of the half-dozen adult movies his company shoots every month. But he keeps a list of movie stars he’d like in his magazine and says he’d give Jennifer Aniston $1 million to $2 million to pose. “You’d sell a ton of magazines with her doing porn,” he says. “I haven’t seen the recent list, but we always make offers. There are so many very beautiful girls out there. We always write their agents and offer them $1 million or $2 million. They never take us up on it.”

Other than that, he’s not interested in porn. “You could say I’m jaded,” he admits, smiling again. He might be jaded about sex but not about business. Flynt says his various enterprises reap him roughly $100 million in profits per year. While there is no means to verify this -- his two principal companies, Larry Flynt Publications and Flynt Management Group, are privately held -- Dan Miller, the executive managing editor of adult news publication XBIZ, doesn’t seem surprised.

“The casino does very well, and the retail side is very healthy,” he says. “The Hustler brand is so synonymous with adult entertainment, it’s hard to argue they are not players in many areas.”

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