Published Sep 11, 2013Presumably a documentary about Penthouse Magazine founder Bob Guccione would at least be a titillating, if not revealing, viewing experience. Playboy has long been regarded as the classier, artier man's stroke magazine, while Penthouse has been viewed as the trashier, more gratuitous version, geared towards men looking for something a bit more clinical to have a wank over. Hugh Hefner was, and still is, known for his smoking jacket and pipe, while Guccione was known for his flashy attire, unbuttoned shirt and numerous gold chains hanging from his neck.
Sadly, the story of the controversial Bob Guccione is being told by one of the least provocative working documentarians, Barry Avrich — ostensibly a bland and panegyric proponent of the narrative formula. Avrich, whose docs on Harvey Weinstein, Garth Drabinsky and David Steinberg have inspired little to no thought, tends towards flattering portraits of colleagues that rarely extend beyond mediocre television fare or big budget homevideo.
In typical style, Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story follows an incredibly traditional trajectory, chronicling Guccione's humble beginnings, his rise to infamy and, eventually, his demise. Given that Guccione died in 2010, at the age of 79, there's an abundance of archival footage and talking head interviews with those closest to him to help paint a very sanitized picture of a man known for taking photos not overly concerned with things of a sanitary nature.
Guccione launched his magazine in England, at a time when Playboy was outselling every other mag of its kind. His initial issues were so scandalous that they became the talk of the country, inciting public outrage and even making it to the British Parliament for debate. It wasn't long before Penthouse became Playboy's direct competition, with the two owners frequently hurling insults and threats at one another.
It was Guccione that first slipped in an unobstructed image of a woman's pubis, becoming the first ever publication to openly display female genitalia, leading to what some regard as the "pubic hair wars," sparking a one-upmanship battle between the rival magazines.
Avrich manages to paint a broad picture of a man that frequently fought against censorship and for freedom of speech, yet never bothers to dig beneath this surface. There are countless tidbits uncovered about Guccione and his publication that are far more intriguing and morally complex than Avrich would have us believe.
One such example is the Miss America scandal that ensued when Penthouse published nude photographs of Vanessa Williams. At the time, it was a major controversy and was widely discussed by the public and media at large, yet very little of the situation is discussed or expanded upon beyond headline mention.
The same can be said about the involvement of Guccioni's sons, both of whom are featured throughout the film, specifically Bob Guccione Jr. The junior Guccioni addresses the fact that he and his father were at odds with one another when he created Spin Magazine, eventually going many years without speaking to each other. But he isn't given much opportunity to elaborate on what those differences were before other talking heads interject and say positive, idealistic things.
The one thing Avrich is hell-bent on exploring in his incredibly hagiographic documentary is Guccione's love of Neo-Impressionist painting and his thirst for fine art. While it certainly plays into the overall story of the Penthouse creator's life, the excess preoccupation on "art" in relation to a magazine that featured women shoving produce up their birth canals is bizarre.
Guccione amassed an incredible art collection over the years and continued to paint right up until his death, but the man's legacy was, and always will be, his porno magazine and various other publishing endeavours. Even huge failures, like the making of Caligula and his attempts to start an Atlantic City casino (losing millions in the process), are portrayed as sweet-natured missteps for a well-intentioned, but slightly egocentric man.
By the end of Avrich's Filthy Gorgeous, we're left with nothing more than a breezy documentary that highlighted the ups and downs of Guccione's life without ever giving viewers anything of substance. There's a great deal about censorship, feminism, cultural evolution and the ethical lexicon of a man whose intentions weren't always altruistic that isn't touched upon at all, making this the cinematic equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation geared towards a very simple audience. (IFC)