In the second half of the 20th century, when all libido broke loose, the most famous purveyors of sex were more or less reflections of their product. The midwestern Hugh Hefner dressed in a pasha’s pajamas and kept a harem of pneumatic blondes in his Playboy mansion. Bob Guccione, founder and editor of the more explicit Penthouse, had the mien of a suave racketeer, his chest festooned with more bling than Michael Phelps at the end of the Beijing Olympics. And Al Goldstein — well, he just looked like a pornographer: the bearded, bulbous, seedy, greedy reprobate peddling dirty pictures down the block from a high school.
As publisher of the weekly tabloid Screw magazine, from 1968, and host-producer of the cable-access show Midnight Blue from 1974 to 2003, the Brooklyn-born Goldstein challenged — indeed taunted, possibly tainted — the notion of community standards in regards to sexual material. His work had zero redeeming social value, other than as a gauge of what American men would consume in order to get aroused. Abjuring the glossy for the gross, Screw ran grotty pictures of scrofulous folks taking their pleasures amid ads for call girls and other sex therapists; The Village Voice of skeeze, it had a circulation of 125,000, which ballooned to 530,000 for the infamous 1973 issue with nude photographs of Jacqueline Onassis. On Midnight Blue Goldstein would interview porn stars, simultaneously flirting with them and commenting on his small penis, in his quest to fit the stereotype of the dirty old man.
Over the decades, Goldstein made millions and lost them, finally selling his Pompano Beach, Fla., mansion — the one with the 11-foot statue of a raised middle ginger — and moving into a homeless shelter. When he died today, at 77, at a hospice in his home borough, a lot of people must have thought the pornographer got his due. That’s not quite fair to a man whose bombastic personality enlivened the years between the emergence of explicit sex into the popular culture and its takeover in the 1990s by the voracious maw of the Internet.
Perhaps not the civil libertarian’s preferred face of sexual freedom, Goldstein nonetheless was at the center of several important cases. Behind the dirty old man was the cranky crusader who spent millions on First Amendment lawsuits and spoke obscene truth to power. “To be angry is to be alive,” he said in 2001. “I’m an angry Jew. I love it. Anger is better than love. I think it is more pure. There’s so much to be angry about, because people are ripped off, the election went to the wrong person [Bush v. Gore], the good guys usually lose and society sucks.”
(READ: Corliss on a Hugh Hefner documentary)
He may also have been revenging himself on the bullies who abused young Alvin, who as a child was a bed-wetter and stutterer (and, need we add, chronic masturbator). A generous uncle paid for Al’s deflowering at 16 by a prostitute. According to Hillie Italie’s obit for the Associated Press, Goldstein “served in the Army; sold insurance; drove a car for the gossip columnist Walter Winchell; got himself jailed in Cuba for taking unauthorized pictures of Fidel Castro‘s brother, Raul; and, as a photographer for Pakistan International Airlines, was on hand in 1962 when [Jacqueline] Kennedy (then the first lady) visited Pakistan.”
For a mere $150, he founded Screw with Jim Buckley, who would later sit for a plaster cast of his erect penis for Dusan Makavejev’s sex documentary WR: Mysteries of the Organism (shown at the 1971 New York Film Festival). Buckley also produced Peter Locke’s genuinely funny porn comedy, the 1973 It Happened in Hollywood, featuring a duo of acrobats called the Flying Fucks, and the breakout hit Debbie Does Dallas in 1978, toward the waning of the porno-chic craze. By then, Goldstein had bought him out of Screw for $500,000.
(READ: More than you need to know about When Porno Was Chic)
Whereas Hefner lent his bulging bankroll to free-speech cases, and spelled out his lofty beliefs in a series called “The Playboy Philosophy,” Goldstein’s approach was defiantly low-road. “He clearly coarsened American sensibilities,” Goldstein’s ex-lawyer Alan Dershowitz said in 2004. “Hefner did it with taste; Goldstein’s contribution is to be utterly tasteless.” Goldstein was as proud as he was profane, boasting in a 1974 Playboy interview that, at Screw, “We lead the league in tastelessness. Our photographs are filthier and our stories are more disgusting. We make no effort to be artistic. … Our stock in trade is raw, flailing sex.” He added: “I may be making a lot of money, but I really believe I’m doing some good by demythologizing a lot about sexuality.”
Here is a TIME portrait of the slop artist, in a 1977 cover story called “The Plague of Pornography”:
In 1968 ex-Insurance Salesman Al Goldstein, then 33, started Screw magazine with a friend, Jim Buckley (whom he has since bought out for $500,000). … Goldstein sold himself as the anti-hero of raw sex—a fat, articulate, self-deprecating perennial juvenile (“I am the furthest thing from a mature person”) who overstuffed his plain newsprint magazine with tales of his sexual obsessions, failures with women and humiliating need to buy sex from prostitutes because of his overwhelming unattractiveness. Screw (circulation: 125,000) features raunchy humor, gross sex, porn-movie reviews and endless columns of ads for prostitutes and willing amateurs. The formula, imitated by several other sheets, tapped an astonishing market of the sexually hungry, lonely and perverse, who, Goldstein says, have a right to their pleasures, just like the rest of humanity. His latest effort is Midnight Blue, a thrice-weekly, hour-long soft-core cable-TV program that now takes ads for massage parlors ($350 per one-minute commercial).
It’s an axiom that virtually every form of art or technology, from painting to books to movies to home video to the Internet, was spurred early on by sexual material. Midnight Blue arrived at the dawn of cable TV, when some local systems set aside several channels for public access. On Manhattan Cable, viewers could tune in to the piano stylings of cabaret performer John Wallowitch or to Ira Gallen’s clips of vintage shows and movies on TV Days. But mostly they were there for the sex.
On Manhattan’s Channel J, Goldstein formed an informal triumvirate with two other cable-sex pioneers: Robin Byrd (born Robin Cohen), a stripper who called herself “the X-rated Ed Sullivan,” and Ugly George (George Urban), a dude in a lame lamé space suit who strapped a video camera to his shoulder to record his encounters with New York women he would beg to shed their clothes. The notoriety of these unholy three spread fast. Visitors to New York from the U.K. and Europe would insist on a peek at Channel J’s sensational shows.
Here’s me, in a 1987 TIME story called “Turned On? Turn It Off”:
Late-night TV used to offer a simple choice: Johnny Carson or old movies. These days, the indiscriminating viewer gets Midnight Blue on Manhattan Cable’s Channel J. One night this month, for instance, you could see sadomasochists play whipsie at the Hellfire Club. You could videotape a pornographic cartoon starring a trio of unflaggingly avid barnyard animals. You could catch perhaps a dozen commercials for call-girl “escort services” and for Steve, a gaunt guy who poses in his undies, gives his pertinent measurements and phone number and caters to all comers. You could hear the show’s executive producer, Al Goldstein, mouth off on any subject that grazed his mind: Gloria Steinem (“great legs”), a play he’d seen in London (“Skip it. Miss it. Crud”), health violations at local restaurants. On Midnight Blue and other sex shows, for the basic cable subscription price, you could watch all this and more.
Or not. Your call.
Manhattan Cable (then a subsidiary of Time Inc.) was so annoyed at having to give exposure to those who exposed themselves and others that in 1985 the company offered its 228,000 subscribers the option of a “lock box” so parents could scramble Channel J. Only 19 boxes were installed. In 1978 and 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled against the company and, in effect, for Goldstein and Byrd. Yet for all their legal agitation, the cable burghers must have known that Goldstein and his Channel J chums sold lots of cable boxes, just as Cinemax late-night movies and the rawer stuff on pay-per-view did. Sex was the big media companies’ dirty little, money-making secret.
By the turn of the millennium, with porn everywhere on the Internet, Screw was hurting. “We’re having money problems,” Goldstein said in 2003. “The men’s field sucks. Sales are off 70 percent… The Village Voice took away all my hooker ads.” Then online sites took away the Voice’s hooker ads, and most of the personals that had kept larger papers in the black. (Do we simplify by arguing that Craigslist killed the newspapers?) A tatty little weekly like Screw could hardly compete with the Internet sex behemoth. The dirty old man from Brooklyn was an anachronism who deserved pity more than outrage.
(READ: Bruce Handy on Pornography and Its Discontents)
Goldstein was arrested nearly 20 times, once for dressing in sackcloth and carrying a vagina cross into St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Other skirmishes arose from his irrepressible truculence. Of one female litigant, former staffer Jennifer Lozinski, he fumed: “[She] felt that her c— did not smell from fish and yet as soon as she walked in my office, I heard the tune ‘The Shrimp Boats Are Coming.’ … She disapproved of me and I had her assistant indicted.” In 2003 he was removed from a plane at the Fort Lauderdale airport as a security screener, Kelly Nobles, charged him with making lewd comments. According to one report: “Nobles claims that Goldstein asked whether she were a true blonde, and then suggested they have sex and that she keep her uniform on. Goldstein denies everything, and the officers are forced to let him go.”
2003 was the year of Goldstein’s downfall. He declared bankruptcy and sold his Florida mansion to cover debts. In court on the Lozinski harassment case, the once-imperious pornographer begged the judge for mercy: “I’m going to be in a homeless shelter… I’m nearly 68 years old. This is not right. I served nine days at Rikers and seven days in a nut house.”
Never in great shape, Goldstein occasionally allowed his weight to reach 350 pounds. At a Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas during the 80s, porn star John C. Holmes told him, “You should be on the same diet I’m on: the cocaine diet.” (In 1988 Holmes died of AIDS complications. He was 43.) The year he lost his house and fortune, Goldstein also lost 150 pounds by undergoing stomach-stapling surgery. (Who paid for that?) His five marriages all ended in divorce and he was estranged from his son Jordan, whom he accused of stealing watches worth several hundred thousand dollars from him.
Even as he waned in the Brooklyn hospice, his attorney Charles C. DeStefano told AP, Goldstein still had the fire: “In fact, he gave me the middle finger. As he did it, he smiled at me.”
Credit him with birthing a gritty version of American sexuality in the 1960s and ’70s;. Or condemn him for those same achievements, and for his contemptuous attitude toward many of the women he encountered. Either way, Al Goldstein probably wouldn’t mind if, instead of saying Rest in Peace, we sent this crass crusader on his last journey with a one-finger salute.