Meet Michael Nirenberg, director of the new documentary, Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story.
Nirenberg is a second-generation professional in the orbit of Larry Flynt and his landmark pornographic publication. The 36-year-old filmmaker is the son of William Nirenberg, Hustler’s art director at the height of its ’70s and ’80s power, creativity, and cultural impact.
Back Issues chronicles the evolution of Hustler from its origin as an Ohio strip club newsletter to its status as a history-making sexual, political, and aesthetic tsunami (barely) contained between two glossy covers each month—all the while subtly reflecting a son’s quest to better know his father.
Michael Nirenberg is a tremendous documentarian who has created a fascinating, hilarious, and occasionally hair-raising exploration of an outlaw American saga as literally no one else possibly could. Fleshbot could not more vehemently endorse Back Issues.
FLESHBOT: What is the mission of the movie, Back Issues?
To tell the story of Hustler Magazine as it was told to me by the people who were there. Many people thought they knew the Hustler Magazine Story but have only been told Larry’s side, which is not the whole picture.
Hustler is in your DNA. When did you fully comprehend what your father did for a living?
Larry Flynt and Hustler have been a presence in my mind as long as I can remember. I think around the time when the People Vs. Larry Flynt came out, did it take form as a major historical and cultural undertaking for me. That movie came out when I was about 18. At that point I hadn’t thought much about Hustler for a long time I suppose. Too stoned probably.
Above: William Nirenberg, Dennis Hopper, and Larry Flynt in 1984
Who are the heroes and who are the villains in the Hustler story? In what way is Larry Flynt not always heroic?
It’s an interesting question as the heroes and villains are fully dependent on the ideology of the viewer. In my opinion, the people who come off as villains are on the wrong side of history. In all cases they seem to not have a sense of humor and are giving these images far too much power than they actually had.
Other than stating the obvious—Larry’s shooter—I wouldn’t want to diss anyone who was kind enough to talk with me and call them a villain.... even if they were.
I think those incredible tapes of Larry’s prison tapes are very revealing how flawed he is. I like that he recognizes that and will be the first to admit it. Generally, I think Larry does the right thing. I admire many things that he did.
Tell us about the process of making the movie. How did you begin and how did you determine who to interview? Give us some anecdotes about the interviews themselves. What were some standout moments?
Clearly my dad was patient zero. He didn’t stay in touch with anyone other than Ric Meyer, who was an editor from 1983 to 1984. Ric was a huge help early on, giving me stories and ideas on people to reach out to. I threw myself into the research.
I ead every scrap about Hustler and poured over the masthead. Then I made lists- then started reaching out. Every interview led me to another potential interview.
After a few months, I did my first trip to LA for this project and did a dozen myself. Once I acquired producers Flynn Hundhausen, John Torrani and later Nick McKinney did we really pick up steam and things started getting awesome.
There were lots of standout moments. I asked Al Goldstein in one of last interviews whether or not he wanted to keep his pants on or off for the shoot. His pants happened to be down at the moment and he was fully exposed. He was hilarious. Told me he has eaten 9,000 assholes.
Above: Michael Nirenberg and Al Goldstein
I liked everyone I interviewed on some level. Going to interview Joseph Paul Franklin on death row in Potosi, Missouri—one of his last interviews as well—was an extraordinary experience. I was ready to be cold because I abhor what he stands for, but I felt sad for him somewhat.
Driving out to West Desert Springs to spend an afternoon with Paul Krassner was a highlight. That man is a counter culture hero. One highlight was when you told me in great deal about the Ted Turner sex tape. It became a legal nightmare for us to keep in, but we will release the entire scene on youtube soon.
It was fun. I could go on and on….
In what ways did Hustler shape your various world views?—sexually, politically, comically, et cetera.
All of the above.I had been sneaking them out of my parents closet since I was a kid. I guess it made me feel like it was ok to like disgusting humor and lust over girls. I still feel the same in many ways, just more well read and better behaved.
Perhaps it had influenced me politically as I usually take a leftist view, but I feel independent of any party/ corporate influences. Maybe Hustler had a part in the formation of my independent thinking as well. I don’t know really….
What was your biggest surprise in making Back Issues?
Maybe how normal almost everyone I interviewed seemed to be. Aside from the obvious crazies, I found everyone to be mostly sweet, open and funny.
Has anything in Hustler genuinely offended you?
Not at all. I’m more offended by mediocrity.
Has anything in Hustler ever unexpectedly aroused you?
Many times. Expectedly and unexpectedly.
Larry Flynt's most famous free speech battles have been against religious conservatives, especially televangelist Jerry Falwell. In the present culture of "public shaming" via social media, however, the left has seeming embraced censorship, language policing, and, as an end result, thought control—think in terms of careers ending over a single Tweet deemed racist, homophobic, misogynist, et cetera. Hustler, as it stands, defines itself as overwhelmingly left-wing. Every liberal with a cell phone seems to be happily playing Big Brother. Do you think Larry and the magazine will adapt to this challenge from what were once his allies—even if reluctantly?
It seems to me that Larry had to assume the left in his fight for free speech whether he liked it or not. There was no way he could consider himself to be a conservative given his line of work.
In time his circumstances made it so he could exploit that position and eventually he would believe it. Which was why he was always courting people like Paul Krassner, Dick Gregory, and Dennis Hopper. I think it’s likely they are going to stay the liberal course until the end. It’s in the corporate culture and seems to have defined an aspect of the Hustler brand.
Hustler is now mostly a brand. It has name recognition that sells dependable products. It is synonymous with high quality pornography, casino experiences, strip club experiences, sex toys, whatever. That’s the brilliance of Larry and everyone who worked for him. Hustler should be studied in business schools. Andy Warhol did something similar, which was make your art, business, and persona the same thing.
Whether Hustler is around for another 40 years or not, the element of shock, wild sexuality, and and “bad taste” will always be around. Maybe now it will all be user generated. The aggregate channel may matter less. Traditional publishing will always be around. We are seeing a lot of vinyl records now so its likely books and magazines will have a long shelf life. We will see…
What’s next for you?
We are now doing a documentary on the subcultures of computer hacking. We have filmed several interviews and are moving along at a nice clip. Its still early days on it, but we are covering a lot of ground through many decades. It’s the most massive thing I have ever attempted and it’s going to be fucking awesome.
We are also out promoting Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story which plays next at San Francisco Documentary Festival 6/8, 6/10, and 6/15 [click HERE for tickets] and is available through VOD platforms in the UK. If enough people legally download it I can stop turning tricks for a little while.