You don’t romanticize Al Goldstein. You don’t romanticize a 300-pound New York pornographer who incessantly detailed his penchant for pastrami, oral sex, and Cuban cigars. You don’t romanticize a man who made millions off sex hotlines and prostitution ads, and you certainly don’t romanticize the 11-foot middle finger statue on the lawn of Goldstein’s Pompano Beach mansion, where he liked to ‘moon’ passing boats.
He might be crucial to your first amendment rights. He may have been the first to portray sexuality in all its realness, and one of the first to depict homosexuality on newsstands. But you still don’t romanticize Al Goldstein.
Despite all this, after Goldstein’s decades-long term of irrelevance ended with his New York Times obituary last December, I tried to do just that. I failed, of course, though with the rise of another burly yid—this one an Internet celebrity, I found some redemption.
Al Goldstein was a loud-mouthed Brooklyn pit bull. For four decades, he unapologetically verbalized the rage, insecurities, and sexual hungers of a suppressed country. In his Screw magazine, launched in 1968, he published outlandish headlines like “Is J. Edgar Hoover a fag?” and cartoons featuring Supreme Court judges partaking in wild orgies. On his New York public access show, Midnight Blue, he would host actors, porn stars, and comedians, and ruthlessly attack whoever wronged him that week–Mayor Giuliani, TWA airlines, Camera World on 34th street. But in the end, plagued by personal demons and a crippled magazine, Goldstein painfully devolved into a pathetic afterthought, and finally disappeared from peoples’ thoughts entirely.
Though my fellow millennials are undoubtedly aware of his peers—Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt—they likely wouldn’t be able to pick Goldstein’s slovenly physique out of a police lineup. And so, I embarked on a mission to change all that.
It felt like a compelling narrative. I would take readers on an illuminating ride through the heyday of Screw magazine, and the celebrity life of New York’s favorite pornographer. I would explore the trial in Wichita, KS, where he faced the possibility of 35 years in prison for shipping Screw across state lines. And I’d tout his legal victory over the Pillsbury Company, which filed a lawsuit after he published an image of the Pillsbury Dough Boy performing sexual acts. Unfortunately, I’d have to conclude with Goldstein’s torturous downfall, subsequent homelessness, and 2013 death. But the final product, I assumed, would be a portrait of a man on the righteous mission to evolve the freedoms we enjoy today.
This quest led to conversations with friends of Goldstein’s like Penn Jillette, Ron Jeremy, Ratso Sloman, Gilbert Gottfried, Goldstein’s longtime lawyer Charles DeStefano, ex-Screw writers, editors, and cartoonists. The result was a legal pad filled with convoluted analyses of a complex man. Yes, there were heroic bouts with the American legal system, and tales of a relentless, principled beast full of chutzpah. But there was also the story of a man consumed by unrivaled materialism, self-absorption, and pain.
Al’s motives seemed to dance along a vast spectrum of grey. On one end was an insatiable hunger for publicity, in the middle was pure capitalism, and finally, on the other end was a stubborn devotion to free speech. Though often lovable, his treatment of select friends and family was at times impermissible. Though characteristic and entertaining, his outbursts of rage could qualify him as manic. Producing any cohesive narrative about Al Goldstein would require 400 pages and the mind of Sigmund Freud.
Peter Bloch, the former editor of Penthouse magazine, had the right reaction when I told him about my plans to write a 1200-word piece on Goldstein. In short, he asked, “Is that even possible?”
Aware of this obstacle, I saved a half-written article on my computer desktop and never looked back. But then something interesting happened. Another Fat Jew was making the rounds in New York’s pop culture publications. This latest internet celebrity, whose uncouth brilliance graces millions of social media feeds, is Josh Ostrovsky, better known as The Fat Jewish, whose outrageous antics, like running a homeless spinning class on a row of Citi Bikes, serve as a comic reprieve from our monotonous lives. (Here he is in last month’s infamous Kim Kardashian issue of Paper magazine, naked and running for president of the Internet.
As I began reading interviews with the Fat Jew Part Deux, something struck me. It was Al Goldstein. In various interviews, Ostrovsky cites Goldstein and Midnight Blue as his main influences. But Ostrovsky wasn’t referencing the famous court battles Goldstein waged, or the victories that helped shape free speech. He was celebrating Goldstein as a force of raw id; as someone whose outrageous stunts served to simply make us laugh and drop our jaws.
I went back to that legal pad of interview notes. I looked past the court cases and first amendment accolades. I ditched the forced narrative of a romanticized relic, and I found the pieces you could celebrate without fabrication. The mind-blowingly hilarious and unfettered Original Fat Jew.
There was the time Goldstein and Ron Jeremy were fellated through the hole of a bagel on a Malibu beach (a Rothian scene if there ever was one). Penn Jillette remembered Goldstein running an ad in Screw, offering a million dollar reward to anyone who could kill the Ayatollah of Iran. And Charles Destefano remembered Goldstein showing up to a court hearing dressed up in an orange jump suit with a ball and chain. The hell with what he was trying to achieve. Forget the Kantian argument about the intent of his actions. These stories were about Al’s ability to shock us, to make us laugh, and to completely abandon the constraining norms of society. That’s what we celebrate in Al Goldstein.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Goldstein’s death. In the Jewish religion, around this time there is an unveiling of the deceased’s tombstone, with its typical “beloved husband, father, grandfather” descriptors etched into the limestone. I don’t know what happened to Goldstein’s remains. Maybe they cremated him and spread the ashes at his favorite deli and cabaret. But if there is in fact a headstone, I hope it doesn’t paint him as a martyr, crusader, or soldier for the cause. Because while in many respects he was all of those things, you just don’t romanticize Al Goldstein.
Jeremy Elias is a freelance writer and advertising professional living in New York City. His work has been published in the Jerusalem Post, The Atlantic, Penthouse magazine, Vice, and more.
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Jeremy Elias is a Brooklyn-based writer and creative director whose work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Esquire and Vice.