Even though he would have been quick to debate the subject, Al Goldstein was ultimately a tragic figure.  He had pioneering ideas and a zealous will to protect the First Amendment but Goldstein ended up a victim of his own ego.  His pathological inability to control himself when confronted with even the smallest of insults caused him to build up a huge list of enemies, alienated his son and his ex-wives and ultimately destroyed his multimillion dollar empire.

Porn King chronicles the court case that ultimately brought Goldstein crashing down to earth and the result is both compelling and gut-wrenching. It all begins with a typical Goldstein outburst of temper: when his latest assistant quit and Goldstein believed she might have embezzled from his business, he left a profane, vicious message on her answering machine in which he threatens to “take her down.”  She turned to the police and the result was a misdemeanor case that quickly blew up into a major media circus due to Goldstein’s martyr complex and his pathological need to verbally skewer anyone who dares slight him.

The film starts with Goldstein and on top of his smut empire and ends with him penniless and living in a men’s shelter as he tries to rebuild his life.  The moments in between play like the ultimate in tragic-comedy for the grindhouse set as Goldstein is brought up on meager charges and ultimately makes things worse by taunting the prosecutors, plaintiff and the judge.  Between court engagements, Goldstein opens up about himself and his life, including his painful estrangement from his successful son.

At first, Porn King is funny but it ultimately becomes frightening as the viewer realizes that Goldstein is simply incapable of realizing when it’s time to cut his losses (the parts where he viciously insults his estranged son are cringe-inducing).  Ultimately, when Goldstein is stripped of everything that reinforces his fragile ego, he is revealed to be a figure of pity – he’s simply someone who doesn’t believes anyone likes or respects him and attacks others before he can be attacked.

Documentarian James Guardino does a fine job of capturing all sides of Goldstein’s complex persona by simply giving the man the floor and allowing him to pour out his tormented soul before the camera.  Sometimes he’s a charming dirty old man with a profane gift of gab, other times he’s a demented sociopath who seems to be drowning in his own bile… but he’s never dull.  Watching him self-destruct is like watching a car crash unfold in slow motion: you’re powerless to stop it but the process inspires a horrible kind of fascination.

Guardino’s approach is unobtrusive but also offers some sophisticated visual techniques to keep the narrative rolling – the motion graphics used throughout the film to ‘animate’ photos and newspaper pages a la The Kid Stays In The Picture are particularly impressive.

Simply put, anyone with the slightest interest in Goldstein needs to see this documentary.  Even the most gifted of writers would have trouble coming up with a character this fascinating and the twists and turns of his court case will keep viewers glued to the screen.  Truth really is stranger than fiction, especially when it comes to New York’s king of smut.

Related post: a look at “The Last Days Of Midnight Blue,” an amazing bonus feature included on Blue Underground’s Porn King DVD – http://schlockmania.com/bfmf-last-days-midnight-blue/