Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Filthy Gorgeous: It’s a Publishing Story

Bob Guccione hired a lot of science and science fiction writers for Omni Magazine. He published other stuff too.  Of course, that is what built his publishing empire and it is why he is now getting the documentary profile treatment in Barry Avrich’s Filthy Gorgeous: the Bob Guccione Story (trailer here), a selection of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which premieres this Friday on EPIX.

Originally, painting was Guccione’s calling.  He was more or less content to live the hand-to-mouth life of a struggling artist in Europe, but his first wife—not so much.  Moving to fill a void, Guccione originally conceived Penthouse as the domestic British answer to Playboy, but he quickly recognized the American circulation titan was vulnerable to upstart competition and moved in on its turf.  Guccione initially served as the staff photographer, because he could not afford anyone else, but obviously those duties agreed with him.  Readers (or whatever the correct term might be) seemed to agree, until things started to turn in the 1990s.

Frankly, Filthy is much more interesting when analyzing the collapse of the Guccione empire than celebrating its rise.  An entire film could probably be made on the tempestuous production of Caligula and it would be far more watchable than the train wreck resulting from Guccione’s battles with Tinto Brass.  There were also cash-draining misadventures with a cold fusion reactor scam and an aborted Atlantic City casino.  More costly in the long term, Guccione fundamentally lacked a vision for the whole internet thing, just like his archrival, Hugh Hefner.

There is some fascinating, honest to goodness publishing history in Filthy.  There are also plenty of reminisces about what a progressive gentleman Guccione was in his business dealings and how shy he was in private.  That is all very nice, but it gets repetitive quickly. Likewise, attempts to position Guccione as yet another First Amendment crusader fall flat, notwithstanding the efforts of Alan Dershowitz.  In fact, the lack of critical voices in Filthy is a serious flaw.  There really should be someone somehow associated with Vanessa Williams tearing into him for the nude photo scandal.

Naturally, Avrich periodically gives viewers peaks behind the magazine covers, because duh.  Yet, the sequence that resonates the strongest describe attempts by Guccione, Jr. (a rather candid interview subject) and several of his father’s loyalists to take the magazine in a more demur Men’s Health or Maxim direction.  There is something to their arguments that might have been explored in greater length.  Needless to say, Guccione, Sr. went in the opposite direction with dire financial consequences.

The magnitude of Guccione’s downfall is almost worthy of classical tragedy.  As a posthumous profile, there is no escaping the inevitable, but the closing fifteen minutes or so are surprisingly sad.  Still, there are some worthy object lessons for budding media moguls in Filthy regarding the importance of seizing opportunities and acknowledging seismic shifts in the marketplace.  There are also pictures of naked women, scrupulously selected for their comparative tastefulness.  Conspicuously one-sided but still consistently interesting, Filthy Gorgeous is recommended to mature viewers for the documentary equivalent of its articles when it airs on EPIX this Friday night (11/8).