Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story: Toronto Review

Filthy Gorgeous - H 2013
Melbar Entertainment Group
The breezy doc follows the ups and downs of a career but never questions its value.

Barry Avrich celebrates the man who tried to best Hugh Hefner.

TORONTO — A cheerful chronology of the rise and fall -- emphasis on the rise -- of a porn-fueled empire, Barry Avrich's Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story shows how a frustrated Neo-Impressionist painter became Hugh Hefner's rival with a magazine called Penthouse. As straightforward and head-talky as bio-docs get, it entertains and informs but is better suited to cable than the big screen. (It will air November 8 on EPIX.)

Viewers should know going in that they won't be weighing the pros and cons of Bob Guccione's career. His enemies don't appear, nor do those who believe girlie magazines poison America's youth. Hell, the interviewees here loved Bob enough to describe him as a great painter, when every one of the canvasses we see -- from faux Fauves to mock Modiglianis -- is an imitation of something better.

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What Guccione could improve on, in the eyes of many consumers, was the erotic photo. Where Playboy gave men chipper, polished pin-ups, Guccione's pictures -- he took them himself -- put the viewer in the bed, with models arching and sighing at the camera. Some of those "Pets," interviewed here, confirm that it wasn't the reader but the photographer they hoped to seduce.

Avrich follows Penthouse's history from its shoestring launch in London (Guccione had moved from the US to Europe to paint, then to pursue editorial cartooning) to its American edition, which explicitly mocked the "old," "soft" Playboy.

More interesting than the blow-by-blow of the competition between the two mags -- Penthouse's exposure of pubic hair started the war; more gynecological landmarks go undiscussed here -- is what the office culture was like. Having fallen early on for Kathy Keeton, the "stripper with a brain" who helped make the mag a going business, Guccione turned over a great deal of the operation to women. As one employee puts it, a woman starting in magazine journalism at the time had two rather disparate choices: Ms. or Penthouse.

One of those women, Guccione's longtime assistant Jane Homlish, is particularly helpful here, establishing the vibe at the publisher's home (his vast, ornately decorated Manhattan townhouse doubled as studio and layout lair) while sons Nick and Bob Jr. describe Dad himself.

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Filthy Gorgeous chronicles both crucial episodes in the magazine's life -- hello, Miss America -- and all the non-porn ventures that helped make him so wealthy. (OMNI magazine, which recently announced a relaunch, being one of the most memorable.) Alan Dershowitz, a friend, appears in the enjoyable section involving battles with government commissions and fundamentalists, a period in which, Dershowitz says, Guccione "was more important to the First Amendment and the Supreme Court." Here, Penthouse's longstanding support of investigative journalism dovetailed with Guccione's showmanship and love of the lurid: Would-be censors like Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell surely rued the day they poked this hornet's nest.

The doc breezes through less triumphal stories, though it's willing to show each of the ones it offers as an illustration of poor judgment more than bad luck: Caligula, a failed Atlantic City casino project, investments in nuclear fusion. Guccione was broke by the time cancer took him, and an inability to adapt to video and the internet had left the magazine a shadow of its former self. To judge from the doc's decades of interviews with this artistic hedonist wearing thick gold chains and a barely-buttoned shirt, he made the most of the ride while it lasted.

Production Company: Melbar Entertainment

Director-Screenwriter: Barry Avrich

Producer: Mike Reid

Executive producers: Jeremy Frommer, Rick Schwartz, Barry Avrich, Mike Reid

Director of photography: Ken Ng

Editor: George Roulston

No rating, 94 minutes