When Jerking Off Is Your Job
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Al Goldstein and Screw magazine were perversely stylish and symbolized the premise that love was neither free nor pretty.
By Eugene S. Robinson
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that the world was in the grips of some of the “best of times, worst of times” notions about nearly everything back in ’68. Pushing for civil rights against attempts to deny those civil rights or advancing ideas of patriotism both in support of a war and to oppose it, for example. And maybe much more lastingly, given greater access to birth control, advancing ideas that love — or, more precisely, sex — could be free versus older models in which sex cost a lot, vis-à-vis houses, children and marital commitments.
That was the world Brooklyn native Al Goldstein strode into when he and partner Jim Buckley turned $350 into Screw, a weekly newsmagazine printed on low-grade newsprint. The newsprint was a budgetary consideration with a crystal-clear message that blasted through fuzzy-headed notions about “sexy” sex and straight into the exploitative. Sex was commerce, nothing more or less. With reviews of porn flicks, whorehouses, peepshows and other elements of a studied sleaze, Goldstein never made any bones about appealing to any other appetites but his own. And those appetites, partially byproducts of the mob, crime and all of the red light that’s been recently captured in HBO’s gritty Times Square redux The Deuce, were decidedly downmarket.
He launched a passionate defense of sleaze as an ethos, and his very existence was what he offered as proof.
Porn reviewer Judge Roy Bean
Oh, and one other thing: Unlike the sybaritic faux sophisticate Hugh Hefner and the trailer-park bawdy Larry Flynt, two of the troika of American porn, Goldstein was legitimately funny. Like borscht belt funny. And his sense of humor informed weird choices — like when he consented to do an interview with one of my high school magazines. You don’t necessarily have to be a New York pornographer to be funny. But you did have to be Al Goldstein to be perverse enough to agree to an interview with high school students for an underground rag unlikely to be read by more than 100 teenage boys.
Even better was when Goldstein, then married to one of his five wives, wanted to go hang out and “get laid” so he could lose his virginity. When quizzed about how likely it was that a married father of one was a virgin, Goldstein didn’t miss a beat. He clarified that he didn’t mean his wife, G-d forbid, but “new, fresh women.” At 16, this was high comedy to me, but then came a two-step that seemed to be a leitmotif of Goldstein’s story: The principal banned the mag and threatened expulsions. In short, all hell broke loose.
The next time I saw Goldstein was when I worked for Larry Flynt. Screw, which initially had sold for just 25 cents, ultimately saw its sales peak at about 140,000 copies per week. Mostly sold through grimy newsstands and paper vending machines. Though it predated Flynt’s Hustler by about seven years and had lots of its ethos lifted by Flynt, a redneck variant of Goldstein, Screw was never as successful, and Goldstein never held this against Flynt. In fact, the two had maintained a friendship, forged by obscenity arrests, lawsuits, First Amendment struggles and various attempts to expand into other magazines and media. And probably, according to Allan MacDonell, former executive editor of Hustler, “Goldstein needing to borrow money.”
Goldstein, though, believed in the philosophical underpinnings of what he did much more so than the First Amendment ones. His goal with Screw was to demythologize sex. “Does calling ‘fucking’ something ‘making love’ change anything about it? Or does it just make us feel better about the filthy fucking animals we are?”
I had cornered Goldstein at an eatery in Beverly Hills one day after leaving the Hustler office. My plan was to ask for another interview, but what I got was a 20-minute screed and then the bill for whatever he had eaten. It was a pretty perfect bookend. If we could describe what happened to Goldstein initially as a rise, then this encounter presaged the inevitable fall.
A fall, in tried-and-true, capital-driven fashion that was precipitated by Screw going bankrupt in 2004 along with his TV show Midnight Blue. Then there were the lawsuits, accusations of mismanagement, jail time and eventually homelessness, all a rave-up working right up to his nursing home death at 77 in our old shared neighborhood of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
It was 2013, and though sleazy and obnoxious would succeed in ways that even Goldstein could not have imagined possible, never would the meretricious have as dedicated a champion.
In the end, we have to say, not coming to either praise or bury Goldstein, that it was really kind of an interesting magic act he managed to pull off. “He launched a passionate defense of sleaze as an ethos, and his very existence was what he offered as proof,” says former porn reviewer Judge Roy Bean. “I never got a single erection from Screw, but I sure as shit appreciated a man who could so wholly embrace who it is that he was.”