As SBS On Demand screens 'Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story', we slip on our dirty raincoat to chart the rise and fall and rise again of 'Penthouse' and the men’s magazine industry.
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13 Apr 2017 - 1:27 PM  UPDATED 17 Apr 2017 - 2:03 PM

When New Yorker Bob Guccione, subject of the SBS On Demand documentary Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story, first published Penthouse in England back in 1965, it was a tame, almost naive affair - a million miles from the sexually explicit imagery we are bombarded with today. In those innocent times before the internet, buying a men’s magazine became a right of passage for your average teenage boy. Heading into your local newsagent to get your first glimpse of naked female flesh was a traumatic man-making experience.

Flicking through the pages of Guccione’s infamous girlie magazine over the decades, their contents parallel society's acceptance of a more sexually permissive lifestyle. From the '60s summer of love through the '70s sexual revolution, Penthouse’s pages became an eye-opening precis on the history of sex. The magazine often pushed the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable in a mainstream publication.

Penthouse, however, wasn’t the first top-shelf magazine to hit the newsagent’s shelf. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy made its debut in 1955 with a certain Marilyn Monroe as the first centrefold. Hef’s aim was to create a worldwide brand that was associated with a particular lifestyle his magazine promoted. 

The Playboy Bunny photo shoots for which the magazine became famous mixed with lifestyle articles, features and short stories by such little known writers as Arthur C Clarke, Ian Fleming, Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King! Guccione’s porn project, designed to compete with Playboy, offered unique soft-focus photography and in-depth reporting of government corruption scandals as its pornographic point of difference.

Years before Kerry Packer purchased the rights to publish an Australian version of Playboy in 1979 - coincidentally the same year Australian Penthouse was first published - a handful of Aussie men’s mags mirrored Hef’s juggernaut. Australasian Post and Pix both promised nudie thrills in the '60s but were soon swallowed up. Pix merged with People in 1972.

It was Gareth Powell’s Chance International, however, that took the Playboy and Penthouse templates to make Australian’s own highbrow men’s magazine. Banned in Queensland and Victoria during its brief lifespan from 1966 to 1971, the magazine, along with Squire Magazine, paved the way for the publications that litter today’s top shelves.

Meanwhile, in swinging London, a club owner named Paul Raymond, proprietor of the Raymond Revue Bar in Soho, was entering the publishing world. In 1964, he launched King, but it failed, ceasing publication after two issues. In 1971, however, he took over the adult title Men Only, and went on to publish Razzle and Mayfair. The rest is history. He was soon known as the “King of Soho”, reinvesting in central London real estate to great success.

Larry Flynt’s Hustler had a far more lowbrow explicit agenda. The US magazine featured more revealing shots of its models and also threw graphic hardcore imagery into the mix. The sexual shenanigans were leavened by crass humour, much of which got Flynt into more trouble than the photographic content of his magazine. “Asshole of the Month” and the frankly disgraceful “Chester The Molester” cartoon frequently got the publisher in hot water.

Flynt was constantly involved in lawsuits and litigation, something he and Guccione had in common. The Penthouse publisher’s most sensational newsworthy moment was a 1984 pictorial of Traci Lords, then a newcomer to the porn world. The controversy started in 1986 when the now hugely successful (in the porn world) and prolific star revealed she had been underage throughout most of her adult film career. The actress had fooled Guccione’s staff with a fake ID.

As Hustler and Flynt were revelling in the joys of the sexual revolution, Guccione and Hefner were opening branded clubs and casinos, and taking an interest in mainstream cinema. Playboy financed Roman Polanski’s Macbeth while Guccione produced Caligula, written by Gore Vidal and directed by Tinto Brass. The latter project attracted a huge big-name cast, including Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud. Guccione was not happy with the cut delivered by his director, so he took control and filmed additional hardcore scenes, inserting them into the film much to Brass’s fury. The film was a box-office bomb.

Despite the above hiccup, the '70s and '80s were a boom time for the magazines. Guccione, Hefner, Flynt and Raymond became very rich men. Guccione at one time found himself high up on the Forbes rich list. Australian Penthouse was also winning big, outselling the Aussie Playboy by three to one. All good things, however, don’t last. In 1988, the US version of Penthouse increased the sex activity within its pages to try and spice up sales to little avail. A new style of men’s publishing was just around the corner.

The '90s men’s magazine landscape signposted the beginning of the end for paper porn. The Britpop explosion and magazines like Loaded, along with publications like FHM and Ralph, were instrumental in introducing the lad’s mag into popular culture. Suddenly blokes were the cultural zeitgeist and magazines like Loaded were their bible.

The nudity was toned down but not forgotten, and articles on cars, toys, music, TV and film, sports, foods and booze filled their pages. Suddenly, men had a magazine they didn’t need to be embarrassed about reading on the train or leaving around the house. The downside for the likes of Playboy and Penthouse was flaccid sales. Magazines like the recently deceased Zoo Weekly and The Picture Magazine became the missing link between lads and men, combining titters and titillation to great financial success.

The UK branch of Penthouse saw the writing on the wall and toned down its content, rebranding itself as a mid-shelf entertainment. It failed. Worldwide, the web was killing publishing. By 2005, Penthouse had reversed its decision. Strangely enough, despite the disappointing results, it wasn’t long before Playboy also announced the end of its own nude pictorials.

Now, despite many of the aforementioned magazines residing in the great printers in the sky, Penthouse is still selling and naked flesh has returned to the pages of Playboy. Will we see men’s magazine turning a new leaf. Or is this the end?

Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story is streaming now on SBS On Demand:

 

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