While many ‘readers’ of girly mag Penthouse have imagined themselves in a tussle with some of the models, not many men can lay claim to actually being featured in a glossy spread, pressed between a couple of busty brunettes, as I was in 2010.
My anatomy didn’t exactly make me a ‘Pet’, Penthouse’s version of the Playboy’s ‘Playmate’, but my noir themed ‘Red Light Romeo’ pictorial gave me a kinship with other alumni who’d posed nude in the pages; Madonna, Traci Lords, former Miss America Vanessa Williams. My stablemates and I have never got together for a reunion, but we’re all footnotes in the history of a magazine that, for good or bad, pioneered pornography.
I never met Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse. In 2010, the 79-year old Brooklyn native, once one of the richest men in America, was dying of lung cancer in Texas.
How this Icarus of the magazine world, often pictured in leather pants with a spaghetti of gold chains over his tanned chest, saw his empire crumble into bankruptcy, is the subject of Canadian documentary Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story.
Filled with archival footage, lots of flesh and interviews from, not just models and former lovers, but the women who completely ran the magazine through the '70s and '80s, it’s a fascinating account of how the Italian-American ‘mamma’s boy’, who spent months in a seminary studying for the priesthood, claimed the dubious honour of introducing pubic hair into the bare-breasted ‘skin mag’ space, that Playboy had monopolised since the mid-'50s.
After failing to find success as an artist in Europe, the 30-year-old Guccione washed up in London in 1960. He ran a dry-cleaning business and edited a small newspaper. Getting a loan, he made it his mission to knock Playboy of its perch, and the first UK edition in 1965, sold out in days. Guccione was off and rolling.
He taught himself to photograph the models and brought his aesthetic sense to the task, "I want these woman to look like art objects. I want them to look like paintings." When launching the magazine in the US in 1969 he took out full page ads in The New York Times showing the Playboy bunny in the cross hairs of a rifle, with the caption ‘We’re going rabbit hunting.’ By 1973, with Playboy in decline, Penthouse had reached a circulation of over 4 million in 16 countries.
Guccione spent a fortune filling his 30 bedroom Manhattan palace with the largest private art collection in the US, full of works by Dali, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso. A big admirer of Roman emperor Caligula, Guccione produced the pornographic historical drama Caligula written by Gore Vidal, who, like director Tinto Brass, was so irked by the explicit sex scenes Guccione later inserted, that they wanted their names removed from the credits.
Featuring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and John Gielgud, Caligula, slammed by critic Roger Ebert as “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash,” went on to become one of the most profitable pornographic films of all time, and still retains a distinctive cache in the cult film pantheon.
This documentary is also a portrait of a self-made man, an intellectual recluse, who preferred to be at home with his wife and pack of Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs. He wanted Penthouse to be known just as much for its intellectual pedigree as its erotically shot women.
Billed as “sex, politics and protest” Penthouse aimed for high culture, publishing literati authors like William Burroughs, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, featuring interviews with Gore Vidal and Germaine Greer. Guccione took up political causes, fought for the rights of Vietnam vets, and exposed the hypocrisy of the Christian right. While Playboy devoted endless pages to sport and consumerism, Guccione had investigative journalists like Seymour Hersh exposing government cover ups.
If nothing else, the Forum section featuring ‘readers’ letters’ shaped the erotic imagination of a generation of men and women. Once readers’ sex confessions beginning with lines like, “I never thought this would happen to me, but…’ entered popular culture, no ‘new neighbour’ or ‘best friend’s mum,’ were ever quite the same again.
In the '90s things started falling apart for ‘the Gooch’. The IRS hit him up for $45 million in back taxes, he lost $20 million after his 82 scientists failed to develop a small nuclear reactor for low-cost energy and over a hundred million when his planned Atlantic City Penthouse casino fell through.
VHS and the eventual rise of internet porn sites saw Penthouse’s decline go terminal. Making the pictorials more explicit couldn’t save him and Guccione was forced to start selling off his art collection. By 2003, he declared bankruptcy and was almost evicted from his mansion over unpaid debts.
‘If you look at Fifty Shades of Grey coming out as a movie, that eroticism is what Bob started,’ says the documentary’s director Barry Avrich. ‘Men's magazines were not erotic before Bob began. They were pinups, glossy stuff. There was no theatre of the mind. If you look at films like 300 and the TV show Spartacus, it is all Caligula-type stuff. I think you care, because this is the man that gave you erotica.’
Compared to the scale of the sex industry that now surrounds us, Guccione’s toddler steps for the porn seem quaintly naive. A visionary, he targeted taboos, and travelled further beyond the panty line than any who’d gone before him. He aimed for the erotic, a sex of the mind, but wedged between the wholesome porn of Playboy and the extremes of Hustler, Penthouse eventually had no place to call home. And what’s pornography evolved into today? we have today? Something so stripped of mystery, that even the erotic, seems a thing of the past?
Watch 'Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story'
9:00pm, SBS VICELAND, Thursday 13 April
Available after broadcast at SBS On Demand