If you’ve ever read about the adult entertainment business, you know it’s full of characters. For Your Humble Reviewer’s money, no character ever produced by that business has been more memorable — or tragic — than Al Goldstein. This NYC smut mogul and 1st Amendment crusader hit on a successful if highly controversial success formula by combining the guttersnipe attitude of underground newspapers with explicit sexual content to create Screw Magazine. He ruled the roost in NYC from the 1970’s into the 1990’s until his infamous ego and take-no-prisoners attitude led to his downfall in a trumped-up court case that scuttled his Screw empire and left him destitute.
In other words, the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of Goldstein is a classic American saga — and it is captured to good effect in the short but informative confines of Jack Stevenson’s new Goldstein Bio, Beneath Contempt. In 208 pages, it gives the reader a quick overview of Goldman’s career: his schlub-like early existence and multiple failed careers, his rise to the top of the underground paper heap in NYC, the controversy and obscenity trials that dogged Screw, the many relationships that rose and fell with the tides of Goldstein’s success and the slow demise that took away his magazine, his fortune and his health. Since this is the most recent book on Goldstein, it also offers some interesting coverage of his recent years, with Goldstein struggling to regain a foothold in the adult film business as he tries to escape abject poverty.
The short length of this book can partially be explained by the fact that Stevenson did not have access to Goldstein for the book and derived his research primarily from existing resources. That said, Beneath Contempt never comes off like a glorified magazine article thanks to the author’s attention to doing thorough research: Stevenson’s work references countless issues of Screw, episodes of Goldstein’s show Midnight Blue and Goldstein’s prolific blogs as well as prior magazine articles and books. Luckily, Goldstein has been vociferous enough throughout the years in interviews and blogs that his defiant voice comes through loud and clear.
More importantly, Stevenson is a long time journalist on topics of cult/underground movies and other alternative subject matter so he’s able to bring a real historical worldview to the table. He’s adept at parsing the gap between Goldstein’s accounts of events and what actually happened. For example, a key recurring element in Beneath Contempt is Goldstein’s inability to maintain strong partnerships and friendships with mentors or rivals: a short list of those who Goldstein has run hot and cold on include Larry Flynt, Myron Fass and Screw co-founder Jim Buckley. Stevenson also offers some impressive analysis of Goldstein’s philosophy and attitudes, particularly on how he pursued a scabrous, deliberately vulgar approach to sex in an attempt to demystify it.
Those amused by the subject of Screw Magazine will also be happy to note that there are plenty of black-and-white reproductions of covers, ads and several features taken directly from its pages. These sleaze-satire artifacts do a great job of providing a flavor of what this infamous tabloid was like. Even more interesting are some reproductions of pages and elements from Death, a short-lived offshoot magazine of Screw that represented Goldstein’s attempt to come to terms with the monolithic topic of our mortality.
In short, Beneath Contempt is a solid little primer on Goldstein’s life and misadventures and is particularly strong as an objective addition to the body of existing literature on Al Goldstein. Anyone fascinated by this subject or the wild-west heyday of the adult entertainment business in general should check it out.