TORONTO - With a mass of gold chains as thick as a plate of spaghetti on his hairy chest, a deep bedroom voice, leather pants and title as publisher of the pornographic magazine Penthouse, the late Bob Guccione seemed a one-dimensional character to many.
But beneath the tanned, lady-killer facade was a solitary intellect and artist who had a deep interest in science, according to the new documentary "Filthy Gorgeous: The Extraordinary World of Bob Guccione."
"Unlike the brands of (Hugh) Hefner, and Larry Flynt for that matter, Guccione was the polar opposite," says Barry Avrich, director of the doc that premieres Sept. 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"Guccione wasn't interested in being a brand. He was interested in building brands, but not brands themselves. He was reclusive, he didn't go to parties.
"He didn't feel that he had to have a girl or two girls on either arm to perpetuate the brand."
Early in his life, Guccione's career goals were also the polar opposite of those he eventually achieved.
As the film shows, the Brooklyn-born mogul studied to be a priest at a teen. He then tried to make it as an artist around Europe.
It was while in London with his second wife that he began a mail-order business selling pinup posters and set out to create an equivalent of Playboy for a British audience — a mag with high editorial standards that captured "real women" and their sensuality.
Despite the controversy his idea created across the pond, the first issue of Penthouse in '65 was a hit and led to an empire of many magazines, including the science-based Omni and music-focused Spin. He also made major investments in lofty ventures, from nuclear reactors to casinos and the infamous '79 historical pornographic film "Caligula" starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and Peter O'Toole.
With his massive fortune, Guccione lived a life of luxury (his art collection in his ornate home included works by Matisse, Renoir and Picasso) with third wife Kathy Keeton, who helped run his business.
But in the late '90s and early 2000s, the magazine's circulation dwindled due to competition from Internet porn sites, and Guccione's company was forced into bankruptcy.
In 2010, after battling throat cancer, he died in Texas at age 79.
"It's a very tragic film. It's a tough film," says Avrich. "People aren't going to watch this film expecting to see — well mind you, there's tonnes of nudity, but not in a gratuitous, salacious way. It helps tell the story."
"Filthy Gorgeous" also includes loads of archival and home-movie footage of Guccione, who always had a swagger and a burning cigarette.
Interviewees include his sons as well as Victoria Lynn Johnson — a former Penthouse Pet of the Year who had an affair with Guccione — and Lynn Barber, editor of Penthouse from '67 to '74.
"You'll meet his lovers, you'll meet his family, you'll meet the dream team of women that ran the magazine," says Avrich.
"This was one of the few businesses in the '70s and '80s in corporate America that was completely run and managed by women — another pioneering thing for Guccione."
Montreal-born Avrich embarked on the project after realizing no one had done "anything on Guccione — nothing."
"This was a huge opportunity to tell the world about a man that was infinitely fascinating," he says.
"I don't think any filmmaker or biographer tackled Guccione because I think they thought they were going to get the same thing as Hugh Hefner, and if you want to take it down six levels into the dirt, Larry Flynt. I think they all thought it would be the same story: guy starts porn magazine.
"But when you start scratching away at it, you realize that, 'All right, well wait a minute, it wasn't just Penthouse, it was 100 magazines.' ... And then he also had the largest private art collection in the U.S. He funded all kinds of amazing things other than pornography.
"I mean, he used pornography to build an empire that wasn't really about porn."
Avrich has previously profiled several famed faces on the big screen, including Jackie Mason, Harvey Weinstein, Garth Drabinsky and David Steinberg.
While several of his doc subjects have been what he calls "rise-and-fall moguls," he says he just wants to profile interested people go where the story takes him.
"The next film — I don't know whether it will be another mogul of another tragic Icarus figure or not. We'll see. Whatever interests me is where I point my camera."
"Filthy Gorgeous" will air on The Movie Network and Movie Central in November.
The Toronto film fest runs Sept. 5 to 15.
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