‘Filthy Gorgeous’: the man who threw out the centerfold airbrush

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Filthy4The EPIX cable service has been giving HBO a run for its money with an interesting and varied slate of documentaries that they have fed directly to many of the major download services.

Last summer, EPIX debuted a devastating film, “TWA Flight 800,” that took apart the official government story of the July 17. 1996 jet explosion off Long Island.

On a lighter note, the cable service debuted “Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story” last month, about the man behind Penthouse magazine and the $15 million porn film “Caligula.”

A slightly ludicrous figure who always appeared to be a road company Hugh Hefner is revealed in the film as a key player on the publishing side of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

The film charts the New Jersey native’s brilliant notion to give Playboy a run for its money in the filthy5European market with much racier photography and the same sort of journalism and brand name writers that put Hefner’s magazine several cuts above the average girlie magazine of 50 years ago.

Guccione aspired to be a painter, but shifted his attention to photography when he launched Penthouse in the mid-1960s. It was the publisher/editor’s gauzy but blunt style of nude photography that quickly made the magazine very different from Playboy with its more wholesome American Playmates. (Guccione eventually forced Hefner to abandon the centerfold airbrush.)

By the time Guccione launched his magazine in the U.S. at the end of the 1960s, he added the notorious Penthouse sex letters to the editor to the mix, and the magazine became a real competitor to Playboy (at its peak, Penthouse sold a staggering seven million copies a month).

The friends and ex-employees interviewed for the film paint a positive picture of Guccione as a host and a boss. Although feminists hated the magazine, it employed more women in top editing positions than any of its competitors.

Like Hefner with his pipe and pajamas, Guccione turned himself into a human trademark of hedonism with his open shirt/gold chain look that he maintained right up to the end (cancer claimed him in 2010).

“Filthy Gorgeous” works as a cautionary business documentary in its account of Guccione’s downfall, which was largely driven by his poorly planned attempt to open a casino in Atlantic City in the 1980s. He foolishly spent more than $100 million of his own money on the project before obtaining a gambling license from the state — when they rejected his application he had to dump the property in a fire sale to Donald Trump.

Writer-director Barry Avrich deserves kudos for taking a high road in examining this pop culture figure’s life and business.

Joe Meyers

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