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Toronto International Film Festival
In the middle of the 1970’s, in New York City, a phenomenon was born that was destined to fascinate, titillate, and gross out middle America. Plato’s Retreat, the first sex club targeted toward heterosexuals, became, under the crafty showmanship of its owner, Larry Levenson, a kind of sexual ground zero, or at least the next logical development of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.
In this new documentary by the team of Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart, the short, ultimately bittersweet history of the place, its owner, and the times is expertly told. Though often engrossing and humorous, the film unfortunately seems to lack that something special that a documentary needs to make it to theatrical release. However, ancillary sales of this no-holds-barred exploration of the meaning of sex–at least during one particular time and in one particular place–should be excellent for distributor Magnolia Pictures.
Shot in a gorgeous high-definition digital format, the film skillfully establishes the mores of the 70’s with footage from the television talk shows of Phil Donahue, David Susskind, and others, on which Levenson frequently appeared, arguing for his secular religion of sexual freedom. It then goes on to recount Levenson’s life in a more or less conventional, but highly competent fashion.
Kaufman and Hart have dug up a wonderful cast of former acolytes, now in their sixties and seventies, porn stars like Annie Sprinkle, and various well-known figures like Buck Henry, Dan Dorfman, Ed Koch, and Al Goldstein, founder of Screw Magazine. They supply a truckload of bons mots, and fascinating personal insights into what it was all like: the sweat and semen, the “writhing bodies” of the mattress room, and the pool that was so toxic it was like “germ warfare.” The film is unsparing in its frankness about the grosser aspects of sexual functions and sensitive viewers should beware.
For the most part, it’s the unknowns, the now ageing, formerly swinging couples, who bring to life the place in which, they still insist, they found their sexual liberation. Levenson himself seems largely to have been motivated by an insatiable sexual appetite and a colossal narcissism. When, during the 1980’s, he reappears at the club after spending nearly three years in prison on a tax evasion charge, the self-proclaimed “King of Swing” is appropriately wearing royal regalia.
All the sometimes dubious fun came to a halt during the AIDS era, when sex, as one interviewee puts it, “suddenly became terrifying.” The sardonic Al Goldstein, though, has the final word when he points out that Levenson’s downfall came because he elevated sex to an impossibly high level, apparently forgetting that, in the end, it was all really just “friction.”
Production Companies: HDNET Films, Zip Dog Productions
Director: Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart
Producers: Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart, Gretchen McGowan, Christian Hoagland
Director of photography: Christian Hoagland
Editor: Keith Reamer
Sales: Magnolia Pictures International
No rating, 82 minutes
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