World

Larry Flynt, a school dropout who built a $400m porn empire with ‘Hustler’, dies

Larry Flynt, a ninth-grade dropout who built a $400 million empire of raunchy publications, strip clubs and “adult” shops around his sexually explicit magazine Hustler, and spent decades battling obscenity and libel charges as a self-promoting champion of freedom of the press, died on Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 78. The cause was heart failure, his brother, Jimmy, said.
In the 1970s, Flynt was at the nexus of a cultural and legal war in America: an unpopular hero to civil libertarians, the devil incarnate to feminists and morality preachers, a conundrum to judges and juries and a purveyor of guilty secrets to men slinking off from porn shops or the mailbox with brown paper parcels.
Founded in 1974, and continuing for four decades, Hustler displayed colour photos of female genitalia, pictured naked women in demeaning poses and often depicted group sex and sex toys. He was shot in a 1978 assassination attempt and left paralysed from the waist down but refused to slow down. It was no shock, then, that Flynt faced many legal fights over obscenity laws. His most significant victory came in a fight against Rev Jerry Falwell, a televangelist and founder of Moral Majority, who sued for $45 million for libel and emotional distress in1983 after Hustler published a parody in which he reminisced about a sexual encounter with his mom.
A jury rejected the libel charge, saying the parody was obviously not factual, but awarded Falwell $200,000 for emotional distress. In 1988, the Supreme Court threw out the damages, calling the parody constitutionally protected political satire. Flynt hailed the decision as an important victory of the first Amendment.
Flynt’s image as a defender of free speech was buoyed in the 1996 film “The People vs Larry Flynt,” which portrayed him as an American folk hero. Woody Harrelson was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Flynt. The film won raves reviews. But feminist Gloria Steinem wrote a scathing denunciation in an op-ed. “A pornographer is not a hero,” she said.

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