• The Hollywood Reporter on LinkedIn
  • Follow THR on Pinterest

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

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.

PHOTOS: Larry Flynt: The Inner Life of a Dirty Old Man

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.”

PHOTOS: Larry Flynt's 6 Tips for Porn Stars

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.

PHOTOS: Box Office Politics: The Movies and Stars Dems vs. GOPers Love (and Love to Hate)

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.

PHOTOS: The Client List: Behind the Scenes with Porn's Biggest Dealmakers

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.

STORY: From Ron Jeremy to Sasha Grey: Porn's Biggest Crossover Stars

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.”

[pagebreak]

Although Hustler has seen its circulation drop from a peak of 3 million to about 150,000, Flynt says the publication -- one of 15 in a stable that also includes Barely Legal and Taboo -- is run by a staff of 10 and brings in some $3 million per year. It soon will have an online version, and if that doesn’t work, he plans to close it. “Never fall in love with a business,” he cautions.

Flynt himself is in love with both business in general and politics, noting, “In the end, most of the legislation Obama is attempting to achieve is common-sense stuff.” He says he spent $700,000 last year supporting Democrats such as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, taking ads in papers, including The Washington Post, offering millions for information about Mitt Romney’s tax returns and for proof that Republicans Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were right in their comments about rape.

STORY: Inside the Risky Business of Porn Star Agents

Flynt’s greatest political coup came when he brought down Republican Speaker-elect Bob Livingston in 1999. During the Clinton impeachment debate, Flynt had offered a $1 million reward for incriminating evidence of philandering by Republicans in Congress, and he found dirt on the man just named speaker; Livingston resigned after admitting to an affair. Now Flynt is trying to target another prominent member of Congress, whom he declines to name on the record.

“I’ve had an investigation going on for two years,” he says, noting that the Republican in question is gay but in the closet. “We’re having trouble pinning him down, but this is one guy I’d really like to get.” It’s the hypocrisy that bothers Flynt, not the man’s sexuality, and indeed he favors gay marriage: “I think gays deserve the right to be just as miserable as the rest of us,” he quips.

The old anti-establishmentarian still lurks deep within him. Perhaps that is why he has never become as acceptable to polite society as his erstwhile rival Hugh Hefner, who has morphed from outcast to pop-culture icon to elder statesman.

“I like him; he is kind of boring, but he is a gentleman,” Flynt says. “When Hefner started Playboy, he would have much preferred to have started Time magazine. I think he always felt guilty that he had to wrap his pornography within so-called socially redeeming articles. Hefner was a genius in that way. But he never was a troublemaker. He espoused the First Amendment, but I have done more for the First Amendment than the rest of those yokels put together.”

As for Playboy, he says it has been held back by Hef ’s personal tastes. “Hefner likes well-endowed, blond, Amazon-type women; if you look in Hustler, you don’t know what my sexual preferences are.” So what are they? “I like petite women. I like brunettes. But ‘different strokes for different folks.’ ”

STORY: Porn Star Sunny Leone Debuts in Bollywood

Those strokes always went much further in Hustler than Playboy, not least in 1978, when the magazine published a much-criticized image of a woman’s legs poking out of a meat grinder. Flynt vacillates over whether he made a mistake. “It was satire, and I agree it did fall flat,” he says. “But it wasn’t trying to disgrace women.”

That comment might raise eyebrows from many women, and indeed men, but Flynt insists only extremists have spewed vitriol on him in person. “It’s usually some whacked-out feminists.”

Perhaps surprisingly for a man who uses such words, he favors “a decent equal-rights bill for women, along with the Violence Against Women Act.” Opposition to that, in fact, draws his ire. “How in the world can anybody vote against a bill that will protect women against violence? I can’t understand that, and I don’t understand how any woman would vote for a man who doesn’t want to protect them.”

Born in 1942 in Lakeville, Ky., the son of an alcoholic father and homemaker mother, Flynt lived in dire poverty and shuttled between the two after they divorced in 1952, then fled to the Army, where he used fake papers to enlist at age 15. Later, he joined the Navy as a radar operator, but after leaving in 1965 with an honorable discharge, he was lost, searching for something -- anything -- that could bring in money.

He found it through a bar his mother was running in Dayton, Ohio, which he purchased for $1,800, then refitted, boosting profits and allowing him to buy other bars, mostly in blue-collar areas where the clientele would get so drunk, he and his younger brother, Jimmy, would have to break up their fights.

In a bid to go upscale, Flynt sold the lower-class bars and bought more expensive joints, where go-go girls led his income to soar. But when the economy plummeted thanks to the 1973 oil crisis, Flynt found himself in debt. He'd recently started publishing a brief newsletter, which gradually grew in size and scope; he then turned it into a proper magazine -- using money that should have gone to pay his employees’ taxes -- and launched the first issue of Hustler in 1974. He targeted a more blue-collar audience than Playboy (founded in 1953), making his publication notorious for “pink” shots of female genitalia.

STORY: The Battle to Overturn 'Measure B': The Forced Condoms in Porn Act

The magazine rocketed to fame a year later when Flynt paid $18,000 for photos of a naked Jacqueline Onassis, taken by a paparazzo. Overnight he became a millionaire. Since then he has never stopped, despite jail stints (including one for obscenity and organized crime in a case that subsequently was overturned), bipolar disorder, the attempt on his life and the loss of Althea (played by Courtney Love in the movie), whom he met when the 17-year-old runaway started dancing in one of his clubs. They married in 1976 after Flynt’s two previous, short-lived marriages had failed. The publisher had a quick-fire fourth marriage before meeting Liz.

A large oil painting of Althea hangs in one of his conference rooms, while a painting of Liz is visible at home. For a man who so loves gold, the modesty of his house in the Hollywood Hills -- packed with antiques as it is -- seems surprising, especially compared to the grandeur of a three-story mansion he once owned in Bel-Air.

“I am in a wheelchair,” he says, “so I need to be in a house on one level. The house in Bel-Air was a monstrosity to navigate. I had to have security guards help me all the time.” Now it is his wife who does most of the helping, and she’s as modest as his home. “I’ve been with my present wife longer than Althea,” he reflects. “I love her to death. She knows I love and care about her.” Still, he admits, “Althea was the love of my life.”

Despite his openness, one wonders if he truly lets anyone get close to him, except perhaps Liz and his daughter Theresa, 43, executive vp for Flynt Management Group (born through a relationship with dancer Kathy Barr). His staff seems careful not to engage in too much debate when their boss pronounces judgment. At his office, everyone -- including Liz -- refers to him as “Mr. Flynt.”

PHOTOS: Naked Ambition: From Adam Levine to Miley Cyrus, Hollywood's Most Daring Magazine Nudity

He has severed ties with four of his five children. “He doesn’t understand people who don’t work,” Theresa says. “He offered all of his children the same thing: To go to college and get a degree and show an interest in a division of the company, and they could have a job. But none of them took him up, and he can’t identify with them, so doesn’t have a relationship with them.”

Flynt even cut off his brother Jimmy -- who for many years was a key aide -- after Jimmy sued him for $20 million in 2011, claiming he was the brains behind the stores, which Flynt plans to expand from 11 to 30 during the next couple of years. (Neither Jimmy nor Flynt’s other children could be reached for comment.)

“If I sent them a big, fat check every month, everything would be fine,” Flynt maintains. “That’s all they want, you know?”

[pagebreak]

Even with the jet-set lifestyle, the gallery of successful businesses, occasional dalliances with women and his status as an American icon who triumphed before the Supreme Court, Flynt remains in many ways a man apart. While he says he has no regrets, he has few true friends, and few people he really trusts.

“A true friend would die for you, they’d cut off their arm for you,” he says. “When you start trying to count those, there’s not many around.”

♦♦♦♦♦

Five Ways Flynt Is Hustling His Way Into Headlines

Mitt Romney's Tax Return
During the 2012 presidential election campaign, Flynt took out full-page ads -- in The Washington Post and USA Today -- that offered up to $1 million for details of the GOP nominee's "unreleased tax returns" and "offshore assets."

Todd Akin and Legitimate Rape
When the former congressman from Missouri stated, during the 2012 Senate elections, that victims of "legitimate rape" had ways to avoid pregnancy, Flynt offered Akin $1 million for "conclusive scientific evidence."

Casey Anthony's Nude Offer
In 2011, he offered Anthony -- who was, at the time, on trial for allegedly killing her daughter, Caylee -- $500,000 to pose nude, claiming that a portion of the profits would go to charities against child abuse. (She turned him down.)

Richard Mourdock's Chats With God
The Indiana state treasurer said during a 2012 U.S. Senate debate that pregnancy from rape is something "God intended," prompting Flynt to offer Mourdock $1 million for proof of "personal conversations with God."

The Senator and the D.C. Madam
In 2007, Flynt unearthed proof that Sen. David Vitter's number was on the call list of the late Deborah Palfrey's escort service and then offered $1 million for proof of any other governmental dalliances.