R.I.P. Al Goldstein, porn provocateur

R.I.P. Al Goldstein, porn provocateur

The Associated Press has reported the death of Al Goldstein, the publisher and pornographer who proudly provided an antithesis to the glossy fantasies of Playboy with a smutty aesthetic dedicated to celebrating sex in all its glorious tawdriness. “We promise never to ink out a pubic hair or chalk out an organ,” read the manifesto of Goldstein’s magazine, Screw, kicking off more than 50 years of reveling in skin and shit-stirring. Goldstein died after a long illness at the age of 77.

While Hustler’s Larry Flynt tends to get most of the attention—and celebratory biopics—as the ball-busting-and-draining, federal judge-challenging, anti-Hugh Hefner, Goldstein got there first by six years, and did it without all the noble credos about free speech. He was out there specifically to arouse and agitate, and Screw began getting hit with obscenity charges almost immediately after its first publication in 1968—and a debut cover featuring a bikini-clad brunette fondling a salami—with Goldstein arrested some 19 times in Screw’s first three years of existence. It was just what Goldstein wanted.

A self-proclaimed “angry Jew,” Goldstein thrived on a good fight, dropping millions on defending himself in lawsuits and ultimately emerging victorious—a victory that was, for a determined rabble-rouser like Goldstein, tantamount to defeat. “I really need the attention of being arrested, because that means I'm still bugging the establishment, that I'm still gadfly to the state," he told Playboy in 1974. "Acceptance of me and Screw would be the kiss of death.”

When the courts refused to play with him, Goldstein concentrated on picking fights with leaders religious and political in his scathing, slanderous editorials. Most famously—more than a decade before Jerry Falwell brought a similar case against Flynt—Alabama Governor George Wallace sued Goldstein for $5 million, after Screw ran a fake endorsement from Wallace thanking the magazine for teaching him several sex acts. Wallace settled for $12,500 and a (clearly insincere) apology.

This proud, fiercely combative streak even saw Goldstein, who was almost always photographed flipping the bird, erect an 11-foot sculpture of an extended middle finger outside his house, as a giant fuck you to the world. But it also manifested itself in increasingly self-destructive ways.

After Screw began slipping in popularity, rapidly outpaced by the competition and failing to adapt to changing digital times, Goldstein similarly seemed to lose his already-tenuous grip on sanity. In 2002, he spent 60 days in jail for harassing one of his former secretaries. The very next year, he was pulled off a plane for sexually harassing a TSA worker. Five days later, he pled guilty to stalking and harassing his ex-wife (one of four), whom he branded a “contemptible vagina” in an interview. Most uncomfortably, his relationship with his son Jordan became so strained that, after not being invited to his son’s Harvard graduation, Goldstein retaliated on Screw’s website with a slideshow showing digitally manipulated pictures of Jordan having sex with various men, animals, and even his own mother. 

Goldstein at least partly blamed Jordan for his financial downfall, accusing him of stealing some $880,000 worth of watches from him, and leaving him destitute while his legal bills piled up. By 2003, Goldstein was flat broke and working menial jobs at a deli and a bagel shop. The next year he was arrested for shoplifting at a Barnes And Noble. He spent some months sleeping in his car and at a homeless shelter, before his friend, magician Penn Jillette, paid to set him up with an apartment.

It was a wild rise and even wilder freefall for a stuttering Brooklyn kid—a self-admitted bed-wetter and chronic masturbator, whose tormenting at the hand of bullies helped shape his fighting spirit—who clawed his way up through various early lives chauffeuring Walter Winchell, selling insurance, and working as a photographer. He’d created Screw with just a few hundred bucks, chipped in by Goldstein and pal Jim Buckley, and turned his desire to see a more honest, less repressed form of nudie mag into a hugely successful empire. At its height, Screw sold 140,000 copies a week and titillated the world with spreads like one of a nude Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It introduced readers to burgeoning cartoonist talents like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Wally Wood, and Peter Bagge. It helped make porn films like Deep Throat cultural phenomenons through Goldstein's rave reviews. And it set the stage for a legion of imitators.

Once all those Phase Two pornos had swarmed in, Goldstein tried to diversify by hosting the Manhattan cable access show Midnight Blue, on which he used to interview porn stars and issue his rants about everything from people who don’t pick up their dog’s shit to all the ways in which New York sucks. It ran for 30 years, and lives on in various YouTube tributes to its freeform craziness and unapologetic misanthropy.

Goldstein also unsuccessfully campaigned for sheriff in Florida, and appeared occasionally in cameos in movies like Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV. But near the end of his life, that sort of moxie and thirst for fame had bottomed out. In 2003, Goldstein declared bankruptcy and folded Screw, bitterly declaring that there was no point when the Internet has all the porn you’ll ever need. (A group of former employees relaunched it.)  The next year, a depressed Goldstein told the Times, “Anyone who wishes ill on me should feel vindicated because my life has turned into a total horror.” When he spoke to New York Magazine in 2010, a sick and exhausted Goldstein declared himself “old hat. I’ve become a senior citizen.”

Still, some pride remained for all the freeing of America’s sexual libido he’d been responsible for, and especially all those fights he’d picked. “I honestly think, down the road, one day, like Lenny Bruce, there’ll be an Al Goldstein article capturing his life and all the battles he’s waged,” Goldstein said. “It won’t matter because I’ll be dead, but I really think it will make something positive.”