It’s hard to create. With any creative endeavor — even this film review that you’re currently reading — it’s difficult to know where to begin, what to include, what to emphasize, and how to end it. Even when there’s a clear thesis or subject matter, there are still many opportunities to go off on tangents, giving short shrift to some elements or even indulging too much in the creator’s own passions. This issue of weighing out interesting parts and finding a narrative through-line is even more daunting when that subject matter spans multiple decades and people. Hustler Magazine has been in print for 40 years and sits at the crossroads of debates on morality, politics, social mores, gender roles, legal issues, and a whole host of other potential wormholes for discussion. It’s no wonder then that so many narrative aspects feel rushed in this 90-minute documentary, Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story (that’s a pretty dark punif you think on it). It’s not that director Michael Lee Nirenberg hasn’t made an informative film, but Back Issues feels more like a launching pad for more nuanced and challenging material, like a really well done DVD extra. In order to acknowledge the various changes that have occurred within the organization and all of the ways that Hustler reflects those heady topics listed above, Nirenberg is forced to skim on these subjects and never able to produce anything that resembles a unifying focus.
This film is a family affair for Nirenberg, as his father served as the art director for Hustler for years. Most likely through that familiarity, Nirenberg the younger interviews basically everyone currently alive who played a part in the magazine’s publication for the past 40 years (though there is a noticeable dearth of former female models). By speaking to these writers, cartoonists, photographers, editors, and lawyers, a portrait emerges of turbulent times fueled by various drugs, crass commercialization, and a desire to misbehave. The film explores Hustler’s humble beginnings as a stripclub newsletter in Ohio, before becoming the brash porno upstart that dared show vaginas. Along the way, Back Issues covers creator Larry Flynt’s “born again” phase (which may or may not have been a stunt), the attempted assassination that left Flynt paralyzed, and the modern era of adult stores, websites, and political muckraking.
Back issues offers up plenty of interesting information and trivia about the process of making the magazine and the ways that made it different than other skin mags. (For example, Hustler featured anti-smoking and anti-drunk driving ads well before most mainstream publications, even in the face of losing potential advertising revenue.) To achieve this, Nirenberg got a great amount of access to most of the surviving principals involved — including Flynt’s would-be assassin Joseph Paul Franklin — who add to the portrait of bygone eras of sexual liberation and magazine publication. The interviewees are incredibly candid and forthright about their opinions, usually to hilarious effect, such as when rival pornographer Al Goldstein trashes Larry Flynt’s brother Jimmy as a “redneck piece of shit” before quickly adding “and I like Jimmy!” Outside of the talking heads, the film’s aesthetic greatly benefits from the decades of content from Hustler, using the covers to mark the passage of time, the behind the scenes shots of the various photoshoots and personalities, and revealing how the artists put together the surprisingly popular cartoons in each issue. All of this is presented with a punk soundtrack that propels the various montages and narratives forward while underscoring the rebellious and provocative nature of the magazine.
The problem is that with so many years, people, and events to cover, each story is only given a handful of minutes. Much of the time is devoted to Flynt’s conversion to Christianity and how that affected the editorial staff, but it’s never clear if it was always just a long con or a manic episode of the bipolar Flynt (both are suggested). Furthermore, there is no singular narrative thread that the filmmaker can unite everything around, which means the movie simply ends because history has run out and we’ve now caught up to present-day Hustler. Clearly, a large amount of the film has to be something of a reflection of Flynt, the man who built it all and cultivated its image while appearing in court to defend his first-amendment right to peddle smut. But even he fades into the background as the film progresses, becoming a bipolar tyrant whose paranoia led to driving out many of his most trusted editors and staffers. And without a recurring central thesis, or at least a few themes, the film never transcends feeling like anything beyond a grab bag of anecdotes.
Looking at hours of footage, thousands of pages of material from the magazine, and decades of experiences and stories, it’s easy to see how hard it would be to cogently unify it all into one thematic tale. Ron Jeremy’s bit about eating lobster in Hawaii every night for a prolonged photoshoot is charming, but what value does it add to the overarching topics of the film? Back Issues is full of great insights and interesting trivia, but the lack of narrative organization results in a film that is never more than the sum of its parts, underscoring how important it is to discern what to keep, what to cut, and to know what story you’re telling.