Al Goldstein, the scabrous publisher whose Screw magazine pushed hard-core pornography into the cultural mainstream, died on Thursday at a nursing home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. He was 77.
The cause was believed to be renal failure, his lawyer, Charles C. DeStefano, said.
Mr. Goldstein did not invent the dirty magazine, but he was the first to present it to a wide audience without the slightest pretense of classiness or subtlety. Sex as depicted in Screw was seldom pretty, romantic or even particularly sexy. It was, primarily, a business, with consumers and suppliers like any other.
The manifesto in Screw’s debut issue in 1968 was succinct. “We promise never to ink out a pubic hair or chalk out an organ,” it read. “We will apologize for nothing. We will uncover the entire world of sex. We will be the Consumer Reports of sex.”
Mr. Goldstein, who lived to shock and offend and was arrested more than a dozen times on obscenity charges, stuck around long enough for social mores and technology to overtake him. By the time his company went bankrupt in 2003, he was no longer a force in the $10-billion-a-year industry he pioneered. But for better or worse, his influence was undeniable.
“He clearly coarsened American sensibilities,” Alan M. Dershowitz, the civil liberties advocate and Mr. Goldstein’s sometime lawyer, said in 2004.
“Hefner did it with taste,” Mr. Dershowitz added, referring to Hugh Hefner, the founder and publisher of Playboy, which predated Screw by 15 years. “Goldstein’s contribution is to be utterly tasteless.”
Apart from Screw, Mr. Goldstein’s most notorious creation was Al Goldstein himself, a cartoonishly vituperative amalgam of borscht belt comic, free-range social critic and sex-obsessed loser who seemed to embody a moment in New York City’s cultural history: the sleaze and decay of Times Square in the 1960s and ’70s.
A bundle of insatiable neuroses and appetites (he once weighed around 350 pounds), Mr. Goldstein used and abused the bully pulpit of his magazine and, later, his flesh-parading public-access cable show, “Midnight Blue,” to curse his countless enemies, among them the Nixon administration, an Italian restaurant that omitted garlic from its spaghetti sauce, himself and, most troubling to his defenders, his own family.
“I’m infantile, compulsive, always acting out my fantasies,” he told Playboy in 1974. “There’s nothing I’ll inhibit myself from doing.”
Alvin Goldstein was born on Jan. 10, 1936, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one of two sons of Sam and Gertrude Goldstein. His father was a news photographer.
Mr. Goldstein spent much of his childhood stuttering, wetting the bed, getting beaten up by bullies and amassing the portfolio of grudges that would fuel his passions. A lifelong habitué of psychoanalysts’ couches, he blamed a meek father and an adulterous, insensitive mother for his complexes in his 2006 autobiography, “I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life,” written with Josh Alan Friedman.
Before he found his calling, Mr. Goldstein served in the Army, captained the debate team at Pace College and briefly followed his father’s footsteps into photojournalism, taking pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy on a 1962 state trip to Pakistan and spending several days in a Cuban prison for taking unauthorized photos of Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl. He married miserably, sold insurance successfully by day and sought solace in pornographic movie houses and brothels by night.
After his marriage failed, Mr. Goldstein drifted. According to Gay Talese’s book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” Mr. Goldstein ran a dime-pitch concession at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair; sold rugs, encyclopedias and his own blood; drove a cab; and landed a job as an industrial spy, infiltrating a labor union. That experience so appalled him that he wrote an exposé about it for The New York Free Press, a radical weekly.
The article did not make the splash Mr. Goldstein was hoping for, but he became friends with one of The Press’s editors, Jim Buckley, and persuaded him that there was money to be made covering the growing commercial sex scene, which the establishment press mentioned only to vilify.
Investing $175 apiece, the two men published the first issue of Screw in November 1968: a 12-page Baedeker to the underworld featuring blue-movie reviews, nude photos, a guide to dirty bookstores and a field test by Mr. Goldstein of an artificial vagina.
Although they had difficulty finding a willing distributor for a tabloid whose first cover featured a photograph of a bikini-clad brunette stroking a large kosher salami, Screw’s circulation soon reached 100,000 — or so Mr. Goldstein claimed (it was never audited) — and the magazine stepped up its ambitions.
As quasi-legal, discreetly misnamed “massage parlors” multiplied across the city in the early 1970s, Mr. Goldstein assigned himself to visit and rate each one. He claimed that his early, enthusiastic review of the movie “Deep Throat” helped turn it into hard-core pornography’s first bona fide mainstream hit.
An issue in 1973 with frontally nude photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sold more than a half-million copies, Mr. Goldstein said — a fraction of the seven million Playboy sold in those days, but enough to raise Mr. Goldstein’s profile considerably.
With renown came obscenity arrests and lawsuits, which Mr. Goldstein in turn milked for maximum publicity. (He also wrote numerous scathing editorials accusing his accusers of hypocrisy, often accompanied by crude photo collages showing them engaged in humiliating sex acts.) Mr. Goldstein, claiming First Amendment protection, beat most of the charges, occasionally paying nominal fines.
In 1973, though, a United States Supreme Court decision made it easier to prosecute pornographers. Before then, one legal test for obscenity was whether a publication was “utterly without redeeming social value.” The 1973 decision broadened the definition to include material that lacked “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” and it empowered communities to set local standards for whether such material was obscene.
This led federal prosecutors to direct some postmasters in Kansas to order copies of Screw. Upon delivery, Mr. Goldstein was charged with 12 obscenity and conspiracy counts and faced up to 60 years in prison.
His lawyers argued that the anticensorship diatribes in Screw made the magazine sufficiently political, though Mr. Goldstein himself ridiculed this defense, insisting that a reader’s erection “is its own redeeming value.” After three years and two trials his conviction in the first was overturned, and the second ended in a hung jury. Mr. Goldstein’s company, Milky Way Productions, paid a $30,000 fine in return for the dropping of personal charges against him and Mr. Buckley.
Mr. Goldstein also won a copyright suit filed by the Pillsbury Company after Screw depicted its signature doughboy in flagrante, and an invasion-of-privacy suit filed by an actress in a cracker commercial that Mr. Goldstein repurposed for “Midnight Blue.”
Screw made Mr. Goldstein rich enough to afford a townhouse down the block from Bill Cosby on the Upper West Side. But as time went on and hard-core pornography became widely available, the magazine seemed less and less radical, and he began losing interest.
“There is a pattern to American life that what is avant-garde becomes commonplace,” Mr. Goldstein said in 1981. “The mass market eventually assimilates that which is innovative or revolutionary.”
Mr. Goldstein began a dozen other magazines, with titles like Death, Smut, Cigar and Mobster Times, all of which failed. He bought a mansion in Pompano Beach, Fla., where he made an abortive run for county sheriff in 1992.
Gradually, Mr. Goldstein’s empire declined. The Village Voice and other newspapers, many of them free, siphoned off the ads for escort services that were Screw’s mainstay. Mr. Goldstein failed to stake out strong positions in the booming sectors of video and Internet pornography.
Meanwhile, his vendettas came to seem more petty and personal. He was convicted in 2002 of harassing a former secretary in the pages of Screw, though that conviction, too, was overturned. After his son, Jordan, disinvited him to his graduation from Harvard Law School, Mr. Goldstein published doctored photos showing Jordan having sex with various men and with his own mother, Mr. Goldstein’s third ex-wife, Gena.
Mr. Goldstein eventually married five times. His survivors include his son. Mr. Goldstein was long estranged from his fifth wife, Christine.
In quick succession starting in 2003, Mr. Goldstein lost his company, his Florida mansion and a series of subsistence jobs in New York, including one as a greeter at the Second Avenue Deli. In 2004, while living in a homeless shelter, he was arrested and charged with stealing books from a Barnes & Noble store.
His long decline found him bouncing from his in-laws’ floor in Queens to Veterans Affairs hospitals to a cramped apartment on Staten Island paid for by his friend, the magician Penn Jillette, to the Brooklyn nursing home where he spent most of his final years.
There were some late bright spots, though. He was briefly a star catering salesman for a Manhattan bagel store. He blogged for Booble, a website devoted to the pornography business.
And at age 69, he was nominated for best supporting actor at the Adult Video News Awards for his age-defying role in “Al Goldstein & Ron Jeremy Are Screwed.”
“Only in America,” Mr. Goldstein said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 19, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a movie Mr. Goldstein starred in. It is “Al Goldstein & Ron Jeremy Are Screwed,” not “Al Goldstein & Ron Jeremy Get Screwed.”
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Al Goldstein, Pornographer RIP
Posted 20 December 2013 - 02:33 PM
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Posted 20 December 2013 - 02:35 PM
That guy was quite the charecter. I have to thank Mr. Goldstein as Screw helped me "discover" ladyboys!!!!!
Posted 20 December 2013 - 02:47 PM
Yup, ''Screw" was one of a kind!
Porn before there was porn.....
- Benjamin Wallace
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