Hunter Stephenson

The Rise & Fall Of Bobby G

Nightwatch, “Interview With Bob Guccione of Penthouse”(1989)

In my eyes, if a 20something guy aspires to sit inside the healthiest, truest beating heart of the human race — if only for the first few months out of university — while making $65K a year, with benefits, AFLAC, and an unbeatable 401K, he should aim for an office job in online pornography.

Most young men today will never know what it feels like to fight on the front-lines of a war, and I believe such jobs in porn offer the safest alternative to wallow in the capitalistic blood that really keeps our world spinning; in this case, to the tune of $10 billion annually (and that is just what is on the books). The strange realization that one’s office-loaned car, one’s office walls, one’s office computer, one’s food, one’s tequila, and one’s toothpaste are paid for simply by harnessing the energy of people fucking to attract the energy and dollars of millions of faceless strangers is nonpareil as far as modern epiphanies go.

To this day and partially for this reason, I am fascinated by the inner-psyche, attitudes and psychology of the pornography industry’s legendary pioneers like Larry Flynt and Al Goldstein, and none more so than Bob Guccione, founder of the Penthouse empire. These men harnessed sexual energy to such great, lucrative effect that they were rewarded with fantastically filthy empires built from nothing; empires that existed like monoliths power-forced onto our landscape of civility by something primal, insatiable. Without the once formidable influence of Penthouse and its sexy ’70s aesthetic, culture today would probably be much different (Dov Charney, Terry Richardson). But it just seems natural that a man, an Italian man no less, would see dollar signs in dismissing Hugh Hefner‘s hugely popular airbrushed girls and general phoniness.

Growing up in the early ’90s, Bob Guccione was the first man I ever saw who discussed and promoted porn like respectable Art. I’m not sure I knew such chutzpah existed. However, even in the days before I closed my door and stumbled into an online nirvana of Jenny McCarthy nude pics and sites like Thumbzilla, something about Guccione’s ideas for the porn industry seemed outdated. Too romantic. Of another era.

In this 1979 interview–his shirt unbuttoned and his naked chest decorated with cool gold — Guccione’s confidence nearly warrants a second guest chair. With leveled assurance, he casually dismisses the failure of his ridiculous and ridiculously expensive film “Caligula,” the now-bogus theory that pornography spurs violence against women, and even wider notions of sexism.

Nearly two decades later, in a great interview with Charlie Rose, the signature confidence remains, but Guccione’s empire had already peaked. Indeed, it was battling the irreversible erosion of changing times and pickier, more peculiar tastes. We witness here in retrospect a well-tanned pillar of the second-gen American porn community who can’t foresee the online porn explosion (surprising), nor hear the approaching death knell of the print industry (less so). At this point, even the Unabomber was turning Guccione down.

Two years later he would make Penthouse’s content explicit, asking models to perform poses and acts long synonymous with the bottom-barrels of Larry Flynt’s Hustler and Tijuana sideshows. And less than five years later, Guccione would declare bankruptcy. His life story — complete with an estranged son who famously founded SPIN — has a tinge of epic Greek tragedy that nearly seems fated. Unlike Hefner and Flynt, Guccione didn’t come off like a sly huckster. There was a time when he believed his work was making a difference.

“Do you worry that it’s all slipping away?” Charlie asks.

“Not really Charlie.”

Contrast Bob Guccione’s financial splat with Larry Flynt’s continued success and his company’s growth (even as Hugh Hefner’s empire sputters on), and I think it’s highly amusing: In this industry, the junkyard dog lives the longest.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Flynt at an ACLU forum, in a backstage room no bigger than a sister’s closet. I asked Flynt why his empire flourished as so many others’ waned. From his golden wheelchair, Flynt’s heavily sedated eyes focused in on mine. A tight smirk hooked across his lips, a winner’s swoosh, and he said, “No matter what ‘they’ say, always go with your gut.” It was a mantra he professed had saved his ass on more than one occasion.

By this point, Flynt was running for political office in California, having survived an unsolved assassination attempt that left him paralyzed and a battle with the Supreme Court in a diaper that was later adapted into a Hollywood feature film. For a few seconds, the dead-serious way in which he delivered this advice felt Patton-esque. It was then I realized that in order to make a living in the world of pornography a man has to be as tough and relentless as any politician. Eventually, there is no room for the artful mind. But I still admire Guccione for almost proving Flynt wrong.

– Hunter Stephenson

Ryeberg Curator Bio

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Hunter Stephenson is a freelance journalist, editor, and consultant. He's been a long time writer and associate editor at Slashfilm, where he conducts in-depth interviews with filmmakers (like Jody Hill and Rob Zombie) and with actors and performers (such as Martin Starr, Danny McBride, Paul Scheer, Neil Hamburger, and Andrew W.K.). He was co-writer of Hot Sugar's Cold World, a feature documentary about experimental musician, Hot Sugar. An alum of the School of Communication at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL, he served as head editor of a “high-and-low” arts section at The Miami Hurricane for three years, noted by director Wim Wenders as being the “most important college newspaper section nationwide.” He went on to found Miami’s first youth-culture publication, Ignore Magazine. His work has been featured in New Times, SPIN, Street Carnage, and Wooooo. He resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, forever known for its Grunge-era reputation as "the next Seattle.”