Al Goldstein: The Pornographer in Winter

In portraying Mr. Goldstein this way, I realize that I’ve fallen into the trap that he himself has set. He comes on like a dirty old man. And he is, without question, a dirty old man. He has been a dirty old man since he was a comparatively young one. (In 1970, when my father was 23 years old, staying at a youth hostel in France, he met Mr. Goldstein, who was hanging around the same hostel. Mr. Goldstein asked my father if he liked looking at pictures of naked girls. My father said yes, and Mr. Goldstein provided an eyeful. Mr. Goldstein was then only 33.) He has a twinkly-eyed slyness, though, that lets you know he’s making fun of the fact that he’s a dirty old man–that the wheezing and slobbering and biting his knuckles every time a pretty girl walks by is, at least in part, shtick.

Because Mr. Goldstein plays the clown so well, it’s easy to underestimate him. Philip Roth did so when he turned Mr. Goldstein into a motor-mouthed vulgarian–and an anti-Semite’s wet dream–when he had his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, impersonate a Goldsteinesque figure, the editor of skin rag Lickety Split, in The Anatomy Lesson. But Mr. Goldstein has been influential all along, both within the world of pornography and outside it. Before Screw, no magazine in this country had ever come close to addressing sex with such unapologetic candor, and without the posturing of Playboy. Hustler stole from Screw constantly: Screw‘s “Smut from the Past” became Hustler‘s “Porn from the Past”; Screw‘s “ShitList” became Hustler‘s “Asshole of the Month.” Mr. Goldstein’s personal style, his maggoty brand of charm, has been widely imitated, as well. The grubby fingerprints of his influence are, for example, all over Howard Stern. The way Mr. Stern waxes on about his undersize penis and oversize nose and his general sexual incompetence is ripped straight out of Mr. Goldstein’s playbook. Constant, ruthless self-ridicule will make everyone else take it easy on you. 

And then there are Mr. Goldstein’s efforts in the cause of free speech. A hipster outlaw in the tradition of Henry Miller and Lenny Bruce, he was brought up on obscenity charge after obscenity charge, including 19 times in one two-year-period. David Foster Wallace dubbed him “a First Amendment Ninja.” 

But while Hollywood puzzled over who would play Linda Lovelace, Mr. Goldstein’s jinx entered the picture. In December, he suffered a cerebrovascular accident–in other words, a stroke. When I visited him a few days later at the Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Harlem, he couldn’t remember what street he lived on and was calling trains “phones”–the usual fixed-cognitive-impairment gaffes. I asked him about Let My Puppets Come (I wanted some clarification: Was he the voice of one of the puppets, or was his role in the movie more of a guest-appearance thing?); his eyes lost their vagueness and he said, without hesitation, “You mean, the one about the pussy-eating Muppets?”  Sad as it was to see him in this state, I found myself imagining what the lead-in to this story would be if he were still running Screw. Final Stroke for Geriatric Pornographer? Or maybe, Stroke-Mag Publisher Stroked to Within an Inch of His Life? Thanks to the double-entendre-rich properties of the word “stroke,” the possibilities are pretty near endless.

editorial@observer.com

Al Goldstein: The Pornographer in Winter