Shooting is scheduled to begin this month on Inferno: A Linda Lovelace Story, starring Malin Ackerman. And earlier this year, rumor had it that a second Lovelace biopic was in the works, this one with Kate Hudson in the lead. It’s unlikely, however, that either actress would be getting ready for her money shot, Mr. DeMille, if not for a review by Al Goldstein, founder and publisher of Screw and host of the long-running cable-access show Midnight Blue, in the June 5, 1972, issue of his magazine. Lovelace, Goldstein wrote, “is almost a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not as she takes the whole joint down her gullet. No, it’s not a small-potato penis but a roustabout rod of 10 inches that plummets into the deepest recesses of our lady’s oral cavity. It seems a miracle. … I was never so moved by any theatrical performance since stuttering through my own bar mitzvah.”
Deep Throat, which had the look of a garden-variety low-budget porn film, had opened and closed in Los Angeles in four days, causing no stir whatsoever. But after Goldstein’s glowing (swelling? throbbing? spurting?) assessment appeared in Screw, Deep Throat became a sensation. It grossed more than $40 million and ushered in the era of porno chic, as the upper middle class flocked to the World Theater in Times Square. Executives took their clients. Husbands took their wives. Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra and Spiro Agnew were early audience members. Barbara Walters mentioned having seen the movie in her autobiography. When Bob Woodward of The Washington Post invoked the reference in identifying W. Mark Felt as his informant in the Watergate scandal, it was clear that the film had entered the nation’s collective consciousness.
When I first met Goldstein at Big Wong King in Chinatown in the summer of 2009, he called himself “an old condom somebody popped a load into, then threw away.” I was immediately charmed. We started to spend time together, meeting for egg rolls and moo shu pork every month or so. In 2005, though, Goldstein, after ballooning to 350 pounds, underwent gastric bypass surgery. This made dining out problematic: He requires unfettered access to a toilet, ideally a private one, whenever he eats. More and more he has preferred to conduct his communicating over the telephone. Here, for example, is a voice mail I received last fall:
“Hi, Lili. Al calling. If you and I were talking 10 years ago, I would tell you how many mouths I ejaculated into, how many clits I licked. But now, since I have no money and no one’s interested in me, I want to tell you what TV shows I’m watching. Invasion of the Jellyfish, a 5 o’clock documentary on the mountains of Drakensberg, a PBS two-hour documentary on the ballet dancer, Rudy I-can’t-pronounce-his-last-name. I finally sprang for Verizon FiOS. I love TV. I fuckin’ love it. It’s better than an orgy. Not better than a buffet, though. I’m doped up on sleeping pills, so don’t call me back tonight.”
Fumbling sounds and muffled curses follow, then a dead-air click. Other messages have contained offers: analingus; a bootleg copy of Let My Puppets Come, a 1976 musical comedy featuring Muppet-style marionettes violating each other; use of Goldstein’s Costco card. Still others have contained demands: various sex acts, the name of the ’80s thriller in which Al Pacino does it to Ellen Barkin against a wall (Sea of Love), assistance registering his Starbucks card online. These messages, whether in give mode or take, always inspire in me the same reaction—a laugh-wince, equal parts amused and grossed out.
The public’s reaction to Goldstein, though, has been more wince than laugh. He was a pornographer and he looked like one—a hairy, sweaty, cigar-chomping, eczema-ridden fatso. He never posed like Hugh Hefner, pipe and smoking jacket over urbane loungewear. The pictures he peddled were of ordinary-looking women letting it all hang out, not ponytailed girl-next-door types acting nasty but being cute about it. Screw was utterly without pretensions to middle-class respectability. In it, fucking wasn’t a beautiful experience, fucking wasn’t art and fucking certainly wasn’t tasteful; fucking was fucking. And Goldstein was, by all appearances, a genuinely scummy guy in a genuinely scummy business.
Lovelace’s first official interview, to Goldstein in Screw, was less an interview than an episode of oral sex in a $17-a-night hotel room. It was her handler’s way of thanking him for the marquee line—“the best porn film ever made!”—that the World Theater was featuring to such great effect in its promos. “Here I was with the world’s No. 1 cocksucker,” Goldstein said years later, “and yet it was a lonely experience. I felt like a hooker faking orgasm with a john.” Goldstein soon had a falling-out with Lovelace (who died in a car accident in 2002; she had been converted to anti-pornography crusading by the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin). He dug up a piece of juvenilia, an obscure work called Dog Fucker, a title and plot synopsis in one, and ran photos in Screw of Lovelace and her paramour in flagrante. When later Goldstein showed up at the book party for Inside Linda Lovelace (Pinnacle Books, 1973), she had him thrown out by a couple of tuxedoed goons. In her later memoir Ordeal (Citadel, 1980), she referred to him as “crude, rude, infantile, obnoxious and dirty.”
By the time they were at odds, the pair no longer needed each other. Sex had entered the popular culture. Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Love Making (Crown Publishers) came out in 1972. So did Behind the Green Door, the first hard-core film to enjoy wide release in the U.S., featuring, with ejaculate all over her dewy-fresh face, the girl who appeared as the young mother on the Ivory Soap box. In Screw, Goldstein offered, in addition to the expected pleasures of explicit images of acts of depravity, incisive political and social commentary. He ran pieces with titles like “Is J. Edgar Hoover a Fag?” and would drop references to Aristotle and Spinoza while swapping sex tips with the porn star Seka. Screw was dirty, but it could also be smart. And so it achieved a certain anti-establishment credibility. Celebrities such as John Lennon and Jack Nicholson submitted to interviews that ran alongside interviews with porn-world figures such as John Holmes and Georgina Spelvin.
Goldstein’s business thrived for three decades, but in 2003, his company, Milky Way Productions, home of Screw and Midnight Blue, went into bankruptcy, the result, he claims, of the burgeoning of online porn, his own mismanagement of funds and the unscrupulous antics of a lawyer-cum-girlfriend. Goldstein lost everything, including his townhouse on East 61st Street and a mansion in Pompano Beach, Fla., with an 11-foot statue of a raised middle finger. Goldstein did time in prison for harassing a former employee (he published indiscreet photos of her in Screw, along with her name and phone number, urging readers to give her a ring), then received three years’ probation for similarly harassing his third ex-wife, Gena. He was briefly homeless in 2005 until his friend Penn Jillette, the Las Vegas-based magician, rented him an apartment. His 2008 campaign for president (“Support Al. He likes it on top”) received scant attention. As James Wolcott said, his “senior years could add a chapter to the Book of Job.”
I’d like to say that I’ve been a good-luck charm for Goldstein, but that hasn’t been the case. His life since we’ve met has gone from bad to worse. Last fall, Goldstein’s social worker arranged a meeting between him and his estranged son, Jordan, a corporate lawyer and a graduate of Georgetown and Harvard Law. (Father and son have been distant since 2002, when Goldstein, in a fit of pique, decided once again to use Screw as a forum to air his personal grievances, printed a mock-up of Jordan being fellated by his mother, the long-suffering Gena.) Just before the reunion was to take place, Goldstein went into a seizure.
I stopped by the hospital to visit him. He was naked save for a single dingy gray sock on his foot and a sheet over his crotch. He hadn’t eaten in days apart from a McRib sandwich smuggled in for him by his new fiancé, a former mistress from the ’80s named Donna. The engagement came as a surprise; every time I’ve seen Goldstein, he’s been wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan DEATH BEFORE MARRIAGE. After offering my congratulations, I told him I hoped he wasn’t jinxing himself. He shrugged, mumbled something about us—us meaning humanity—being “the flea on the ass of a dog,” then asked me what was happening on the television program In Treatment.
In portraying 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 Goldstein, who was hanging around the same hostel. Goldstein asked my father if he liked looking at pictures of naked girls. My father said yes, and Goldstein provided an eyeful. 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 Goldstein plays the clown so well, it’s easy to underestimate him. Philip Roth did so when he turned 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 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983). But 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.” 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 Stern waxes on about his undersize penis and oversize nose and his general sexual incompetence is ripped straight out of Goldstein’s playbook. Constant, ruthless self-ridicule will make everyone else take it easy on you.
And then there are 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 a two-year-period. David Foster Wallace dubbed him “a First Amendment Ninja.”
But while Hollywood puzzled over who would play Linda Lovelace, 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.