The Movie Network / Movie Central - Nov. 8
"Filthy Gorgeous" takes a revealing look
at "Penthouse" founder Bob Guccione
By Eric Kohanik
“It was odd because I expected, within the year, there would be all kinds of bio-pics announced,” Avrich recalls. “And there was nothing, because no one knew him.”
So, Avrich set out to tell the story. The resulting documentary, Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story, launched at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and Avrich was pleased with the response. He admits the story is sad: Guccione died penniless in a Texas hospital after a battle with throat cancer.
“It is a rise-and-fall [story],” Avrich reflects over coffee at a downtown Toronto espresso house. “It's tragic, [but] I don't know whether he would consider it tragic. Because, if you live for 79 years, and 74 of them are damn good, so be it. It was a great life.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, Guccione briefly considered becoming a priest before setting off for Europe to be an artist. He eventually became famous for Penthouse, a men's magazine that began in England in the 1960s before taking aim at Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire in the U.S.
The success of Penthouse led to vast wealth and an opulent lifestyle that made Guccione, often decked out in gold chains, a notorious icon of hedonism in the 1970s and '80s. His success led to other ventures, ranging from movies (Caligula) and magazines (including Omni and Viva) to the development of nuclear-fusion energy and even a failed hotel/casino project in Atlantic City.
Along the way, there were ironic turns, ranging from Guccione's role as a righteous defender of the First Amendment to his decision to publish photos that would cause the first African-American Miss America, Vanessa Williams, to be stripped of her crown.
Filthy Gorgeous doesn't hold back in tracing the entire story in sometimes-stark detail. The documentary begins by warning viewers that it is filled with nudity, profanity “and some truth.”
The film is brimming with revealing interviews, ranging from Guccione's family (including sons Nick and Bob Jr.) to professional associates (including Alan Dershowitz and Xaviera Hollander).
Particularly insightful are recollections of Guccione's personal assistant, Jane Homlish, and Victoria Johnson, who was 1978's Penthouse Pet of the Year and one of Guccione's lovers.
“There were twists and turns for me,” Avrich says. “When I decided to make the film, I didn't know everything about him. I chose him because nothing had been done and I was curious.”
That curiosity arose after Avrich was invited to screen his 2005 documentary, The Last Mogul (about Hollywood agent Lew Wasserman), at the Playboy Mansion.
“I was intrigued,” Avrich recalls. “After so many years, why is the Hugh Hefner brand, the Playboy brand, so powerful and the Penthouse brand is tattered and left in ruins, like a Shakespearean tragedy? So, I started to do some preliminary research. When Guccione died in 2010, that file moved to the front for me.”
It soon became clear there was a lot to the story. “He was a flawed genius, without a doubt,” Avrich says. “We're all flawed; few of us are geniuses. And that made him, for me as a filmmaker, really interesting.”
A native of Montreal, Avrich divides his time between making movies and running an advertising agency in Toronto. His credits include last year's Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky and 2011's Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project.
Fithy Gorgeous is a compelling addition to that roster, particularly in light of how the story ultimately ends.
“The man died without a penny,” Avrich says. “Without a penny. Nothing to his name. Zero.
“In that 200-square-foot hospital room in Plano, Texas, was this man with nothing but the name on the door. It's sad.”
Filthy Gorgeous - The Movie Network / Movie Central - Nov. 8
(First published in Channel Guide Magazine - November 2013.)