Al Goldstein, the anti-Hugh Hefner, died earlier this week. Whereas Playboy marketed the idea that men who leer at naked women embody a suave, sophisticated, almost James Bond-like cool, Screw magazine restored the popular prejudice that pornography remained a habitual refuge for sweaty, socially-awkward blokes frustrated by their inability to live their fantasies in the real world. There was honesty in Al Goldstein’s pornography.
Goldstein knew his audience because he was his audience. Before shops held dirty magazines captive in clean plastic, the “adult” aisle teemed with gawking Goldstein look-alikes. Hefner’s magazine placed women on a pedestal; Goldstein’s knocked them down into the gutter. Playboy did beautiful; Screw, ugly. The physiognomy of its readers reflected the content of its pages.
The jewel of Hefner’s Beverly Hills paradise remains the grotto, a beautiful earthen cavern that mixes light, water, and rock to project an otherworldly quality. The centerpiece of Goldstein’s Florida mansion was a giant statue of an extended middle finger. Hefner, a man lacking in spirituality, at least extolled the wonders of the material world. Goldstein lived to offend that world, incapable of shielding his seething contempt in manner, speech, or even lawn fixtures.
In a precursor to the celebrity sex tape, Goldstein published surreptitiously obtained nude photographs of the former First Lady of the United States in 1973. A half-million Americans aided and abetted his invasion of Jacqueline Kennedy’s privacy through purchase of his magazine. Like so many who vehemently assert their own rights, Goldstein showed little respect for the rights of others — let alone the duties he owed them as fellow human beings. When he vindictively published the phone number of a former receptionist who had angered him, Goldstein advertised his bitterness for all, or at least for his readers, to see.
Perceived slights from Big Apple small businessmen incurred his wrath on his vulgar cable-access program, Midnight Blue. “The women who are not good at b--- jobs wind up doing your fingers and your toes,” he maintained in calling out a Manhattan nail salon that had kept him waiting. “These bastards who would be much better off s---ing and f---ing are used to lying to Americans.”
The misogyny that inspired Goldstein to depict women as props in his fantasy inhibited relationships with actual women, a malady that he spread to his readers. He married five times, eventually alienating each of his brides. When his only son kept him off the guest list at his graduation from Harvard Law School, Goldstein published a doctored depiction of him having sex with his mother. The principled pornographer remained faithful to smut more than family.
Goldstein’s kin suffered through living with him; more so did Al Goldstein.
In addition to his wives and son, he lost his business. Screw magazine ceased to exist in 2003 after 35 years and nearly 2,000 issues. What print had done to peep shows, the internet exacted upon print. “There is a pattern to American life that what is avant-garde becomes commonplace,” Goldstein, out-smutted by the competitors he had inspired, observed in 1981. “The mass market eventually assimilates that which is innovative or revolutionary.”
Goldstein soon lost his home along with his business. Whereas he once split time between his Upper West Side townhouse and Pompano Beach manse, in the new millennium he alternated between sleeping at a local homeless shelter and in his car parked behind a Boston Market. He spent days behind bars. In 2004, police arrested him for stealing books at Barnes & Noble. Publishers not named Al Goldstein maintained no rights Al Goldstein felt obligated to respect.
A man enslaved to his own appetites becomes a tyrant to those around him. Wives, sons, and secretaries could quit Al Goldstein. The tragedy for Al Goldstein is that he could never quite elude Al Goldstein.