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Larry Flynt remains one of those heroic anti-heroes unique to our time, sort of like a First Amendment Jack Kevorkian.
Like Kevorkian, the fact that there is something vaguely oily about Flynt tends to blunt a very cogent and important message that the rest of us would do well to heed. But there is nothing ambiguous about IFC’s “Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone,” a documentary film from producer-director Joan Brooker-Marks that paints Flynt as nothing less than a free speech icon who has long been wrongly demonized and vilified as a two-bit mob-connected pornographer.
It’s a fascinating — if only semibalanced — look at the notorious architect of the Hustler magazine empire that really does leave us feeling that Flynt has gone to bat for our freedoms in a way few Americans have before. He just kind of did it his way.
Rich with clips dating to Flynt’s rise in the 1970s and his first court case in Cincinnati after his indictment for pandering obscenity and racketeering, the IFC project obviously was done with Flynt’s full cooperation — and it’s easy to see why.
Those who oppose him here are painted as oafish and fascist, including heavyweights of the feminist movement like Gloria Steinem. By contrast, Flynt, whose speech and bearing now paint him as something of a mealy-mouthed troll, is shown at every turn to be righteous, earnest and singularly patriotic. He makes no bones about the fact that he’s a businessman out to earn a buck yet at the same time concerned that the free expression long considered an American right continues to come under increasingly heavy-handed assault. And he seems to care deeply about it beyond the wheelchair he has been chained to since being shot and paralyzed in 1978.
As we’ve seen repeatedly during the course of the past 30 years, Flynt is an endless object of fascination, not to mention contempt and revulsion. There was of course the 1996 Milos Forman film “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” But Flynt also happens to be a master media manipulator who more recently drew press for his $1 million offer to anyone who provided information on members of Congress involved in extramarital hanky-panky — it resulted in a couple of full-on humiliations and resignations. Love him or despise him, Flynt has long been about honesty and candor if not quite integrity. He fights for what he believes in even to the point of being imprisoned.
It is this last point that “The Right to Be Left Alone” so adeptly illustrates. Flynt is painted as an indomitable survivor who refuses to back down. In that way, he has not only lived to see his star enjoy an unlikely rise, but indeed the man has become a passionate symbol of righteous disobedience in a civil rights-depleted post-9/11 nation. Booker-Marks might be accused here of glorifying a sleaze-monger and a scoundrel, but it’s difficult to argue with her depiction of Flynt as a man who truly loves his country.
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