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Commentary: Hustlerization of America

By
CATHERINE SEIPP

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- What's odd about Arnold Schwarzenegger's wild old "Pumping Iron" days isn't how much trouble they're causing him now that he's entered politics, but how little.

A few weeks before that infamous 1977 Oui interview surfaced - in which Schwarzenegger bragged about having group sex with a woman who'd wandered into the gym - a naked picture of Schwarzenegger from around the same time was posted all over the Internet.

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What was remarkable about that image wasn't its full-frontal view of California's top gubernatorial candidate, but that its effect on his candicacy has been zero.

Granted, that body beautiful shot is old news to Arnold-watchers. Still, it's something of a watershed media moment when pictures of politicans' penises cause nary a ripple.

But maybe that's what we should expect now that not one but two porn industry characters - actress Mary Carey and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt (soundbite about budget-balancing: "a slot machine on every corner") - are also running for governor of California.

As it happens, the same week in August that Arnold and his private parts were making the Internet rounds, an ailing Penthouse finally declared bankruptcy.

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This came in the wake of years of bad business decisions by owner Bob Guccione - beginning with the bang of investing $17.5 million in the 1980 film flop "Caligula," and ending with the whimper these past few years of trying to compete with really hardcore rivals like Larry Flynt or video and cyberspace porn.

Another watershed moment in the annals of titillation ... and also for me personally, because it looks like my happy gig writing articles (pristinely and strictly non-porn, thanks) for Penthouse may be up.

And to proper feminists who ask how I can work for a magazine that exploits women, my answer is always, go write for a women's magazine before you talk to me about exploited women.

Lured by the prospect of what, ludicrously, always seems like easy money, I have occasionally over the years done just that.

But after weeks of snippy, sorority slambook-style fee negotiations - "And FYI, the editor said, 'Why does she think SHE should get that much?'" - and torturously rewriting and REWRITING until the correct women's mag tone (perky, smarmy, know-it-all, generic) is achieved, that fatally tempting $2 a word shrinks to about 2 cents an hour.

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At Penthouse, on the other hand, the drill always went like this: Accept advance, turn in article, hear back from editor within hours about how much he liked it, see not one word changed, collect $6,000.

So athough the magazine's current financial troubles mean it's now almost six months late paying for my last piece, I can't be too mad. They've always treated me so well.

And actually, the bankruptcy may bring some relief, as the magazine is now starting to work on fall issues again.

I was talking about this the other day to a friend, TV writer Rob Long, who suggested that while employers typically treat writers like prostitutes, maybe pornographers can afford not to, because they hire actual prostitutes.

Still, I'm not kidding myself; Penthouse has gotten really dirty.

It wasn't always so raw. When I first wrote for the magazine, in 1988, a typical pictorial was a romantic reverie about lovely stewardess roommates who realized that dateless evenings can be fun.

When we reconnected 10 years later, gauzy lesbian interludes had been replaced by crisp explorations of Penthouse Pets and their urination habits.

And these are just the pictures I can describe without blushing. It's all part of what I think of as the Hustlerization of America.

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The paradox is that as Penthouse desperately tried to attract vanishing readers by becoming even raunchier - circulation has fallen from its five million peak in the 1970s to just over half-a-million today - readers continued to vanish, and even alcohol and tobacco companies began to find the magazine too rough for their ads.

Hustler's rate base is also down to about half-a-million (from a three million peak). But Larry Flynt of L.A., unlike Bob Guccione of New York, has become a remarkably successful example of porn synergy.

He's expanded the Hustler brand from Larry Flynt Publishing to political muckraking (via his pro-Clinton campaign in the late '90s) to First Amendment activism to his own candidacy.

Of course, the hairy palm of Hustler has been reaching beyond porn for years. But then the porn sensibility permeates American life now in so many ways - from fashion to music videos to network TV.

Coming this fall on Fox is "Skin," a "Romeo & Juliet"-inspired teen drama with the Montague and Capulet families headed by a district attorney and a porn mogul.

Another example of the Hustlerization of pop culture happened a few episodes ago on Bravo TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," when the Fab Five suggested to their good-natured straight slob-of-the-week that maybe his apartment would be look better if he stowed the piles of porn.

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The guy was slightly embarrassed, but not much.

Flynt's mainstream ambitions are especially evident in the airy, gleaming unsleazy Hustler Hollywood store, a Sunset Strip landmark ever since it opened in late 1998.

The place is distinguished by clean blond wood, like the Gap, and friendly clerks who addressed me as "sweetie" when I dropped in one morning.

Maybe they were just happy that I wasn't one of their problematic customers - drunks often wander in late at night from nearby bars and vomit on the floor. Still, it gave me a cozy, welcome feeling.

Flynt has said that he wants Hustler Hollywood to appeal to women. Certainly he's enjoyed newfound popularity among anti-Republican feminists since jumping to Clinton's defense during the impeachment scandals, and lately he's been downplaying Hustler's distinctive raunch, insisting that it's all just "plain vanilla" sex.

But for the record, here's what passes for plain vanilla in Hustler: "I'm a very attractive lady with short, raven hair," began one made-up reader's letter in the last Hustler I picked up, "and I constantly fantasize about f---- my dog."

And yet all most people see in Flynt now is his Cuddly Old Reprobate persona. I remember one press conference at which he told reporters wistfully, with his deferential lady publicist at his side, that he'd like "maybe a night with Cindy Crawford."

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All things considered, a pretty benign wish, and rather touchingly Walter Mittyish, considering the wheelchair and the bloat.

But Larry Flynt's surreally debased effect on public

discourse has been so effective that now almost nothing else is shocking at all.

Whenever a quick flip through Vogue reveals pages of advertising tableaux that used to be confined to S&M fetish magazines, or Madonna and Britney Spears publicly behave as if they were in a porn pictorial, or nude pictures of political candidates are posted on the Internet and no one blinks, look for Larry Flynt, Ma, he'll be there, just like Tom Joad.

I'm not knocking porn - as I said, Penthouse has been good to me - but maybe every era gets the Everyman it deserves.

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