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“Larry Flynt: The Right to be Left Alone” is an impressionistic documentary portrait of America’s most famous smut peddler, where the focus is less on his life and legacy as on his First Amendment court battles over the past 30 years. Larry Flynt has spent more time in court than many lawyers. He also has spent time in jail for his beliefs. So when this man talks about the meaning of democracy, he has earned the right to be heard.
Those who do listen probably will be like-minded constitutional liberals. On the other hand, this film by Joan Brooker-Marks is a call to debate on all sides so “Left Alone” might have a long life in the various markets for docus. The film does not yet have a distributor.
Flynt is a lightning rod. No one is neutral about him, Hustler magazine or his beliefs. He has a way of engaging his fiercest enemies so that some wind up with a grudging respect for the man. The Rev. Jerry Falwell reportedly tried to bury the hatchet following his libel suit against the pornographer. Yet women who are otherwise liberal-minded turn red with anger when his name crops up. One calls him a “sexual fascist.”
Brooker-Marks enters this mine field with little interest in questions of pornography or sexual politics. She views Flynt as one of our foremost though perhaps accidental defenders of the First Amendment.
His first court case in Cincinnati in 1977, where he was indicted for pandering obscenity and racketeering, was overturned by the court of appeals. In Los Angeles in the early ’80s, he was found in contempt of court for refusing to reveal his source for the John DeLorean videotape of the FBI sting operation against the auto manufacturer. He was sentenced to 15 months and sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Falwell’s libel suit over a clearly satirical though offensive parody implying the preacher’s first sexual experience was with his mother in an outhouse went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1988. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled in his favor to protect the right of satire and parody of a public person.
In 2001, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Flynt sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon to allow press access to the battlefield. This might have caused the Pentagon to institute the procedure now known as “embedding” reporters with the military.
The film covers his tragedies — getting shot and paralyzed during his obscenity trial in Georgia in 1978 and the death of his wife Althea from AIDS in 1987. The film also touches briefly on his larkish campaigns for California governor and president, the Milos Forman biopic and his decision not to publish nude photos of Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch following the administration’s staged rescue of her in Iraq.
The film seems pieced together from archival sources (often of poor quality) and public appearances by Flynt, so he remains a remote figure, somewhat lost in a haze of court battles and tumultuous events. The film never challenges him over adolescent antics that often undermine his legal and social positions nor about the harm his pornography — especially themes of rape, incest and pedophilia — may cause. It fails to mention in any detail his four other marriages or the daughter who claims he abused her as a child.
Nevertheless, his constant refrain — that the biggest enemy of democracy is apathy — hits home. When you look at the low turnout at the polls in U.S. elections, you realize how right he is.
LARRY FLINT: THE RIGHT TO BE LEFT ALONE
Director: Joan Brooker-Marks
Producers: Walter Marks, Joan Brooker-Marks
Directors of photography: Katharina Rohrer, T.J. Martin
Music: Walter Marks
Animation: Dorian West
Editor: Kamil Dobrowolski
Running time — 80 minutes
No MPAA rating
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