The Oy of Sex
I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life
By Al Goldstein and Josh Alan Friedman
271 pages. Thunder’s Mouth Press. $26.95.
In America, Jews have had what might delicately be called a special relationship with pornography since the dawn of the 20th century. The infamously prudish New York Society for the Suppression of Vice kept tabs on obscenity arrests in New York City, and the numbers—dredged up by Jay Gertzman in his brilliant history of the erotica trade, Bookleggers and Smuthounds—tell quite a story.
In 1885, three out of the 18 people arrested for obscenity in New York were identified as Jewish; in 1905, 54 out of 90 were; and by 1939, the number rose to a whopping 28 out of 32, or almost 90 percent. Of course, back then a guy could get busted for selling Ulysses, so not all of those arrested were pornographers by today’s standards. And obviously the individuals in the erotica trade were at most a tiny, unrepresentative fraction of the city’s Jewish population. Yet for various reasons—largely economic ones, such as the anti-Semitic obstacles barring Jews from many respectable careers—a coterie of Jewish entrepreneurs gravitated toward the production, distribution, and marketing of materials that were stigmatized as lewd, vulgar, or just plain tasteless.
By the 1960s and ‘70s, this situation had changed. Thanks to a revolution in the laws, pornography went mainstream, and the machers who emerged in the field were mostly not Jewish: Hugh Hefner of Playboy, Bob Guiccione of Penthouse, and Larry Flynt of Hustler being perhaps the most powerful figures in pornographic publishing. A handful of Jews contributed to the development of the industry, including the recently deceased Ralph Ginzburg (who hilariously attempted to mail one of his publications from Blue Ball and Intercourse, Pennsylvania, before finally settling for Middlesex, New Jersey). For the most part, though, Jews had moved on to other fields.
Not Al Goldstein. New Yorkers recall Goldstein as the corpulent and foul-mouthed, if strangely charming, host of the long-running late-night cable show Midnight Blue. On it, he interviewed porn stars, alternating between real questions (“Do you think people can learn from going to sex films?”) and forthright demands for sexual favors. Before he found a home on television, Goldstein had distinguished himself as founder and publisher of Screw, a pornographic weekly newspaper that debuted on November 4, 1968, as a “twelve page, black and white tabloid” selling for a quarter.
As presented in a shoddy but compelling autobiography titled I, Goldstein, the pornographer’s life story is as sordid as any porn film, and ultimately just as depressing. Raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and exposed early on to celebrity culture by his photographer father, Goldstein exhibited talent for showmanship as a kid; in the late ‘40s, he appeared on local TV as “Little Alvin Goldstein the baseball expert,” reciting statistics from The Sporting News.
Bar mitzvahed at an Orthodox synagogue, Goldstein “hated every moment,” and he cites a religious summer camp, complete “with tsfillin [sic], prayer shawls, and Talmudic rhetoric,” which he attended for two weeks, as the source of his “manic depression.” He even had a brief stint as a waiter in the children’s dining room at Grossinger’s, the famed Catskills resort. Yet only a little Jewishness lingered on as Goldstein matured, noticeable primarily in the peppering of his editorials with Yiddish expletives and his enduring fondness for deli meat. (Having once weighed in at 350 pounds, he devotes a chapter to his musings on Jewish food: kosher pastrami “fares poorly… it ain’t spicy”; he prefers the kosher-style, cured pastrami at Katz’s, the skirt steak at Sammy’s Romanian, and, in L.A., cheese blintzes at Canter’s.)
What stuck with the young Goldstein was smut: as a teenager, he searched out the dirty bits in Harold Robbins and Henry Miller novels, collected Tijuana Bibles, and, at 16, was initiated into sex by one of his uncle George’s many girlfriends. His adult adventures in erotica comprise an extraordinary résumé: among other things, he received oral sex from Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, published a photo “purporting to be of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s” most private part, and was nominated for a “best supporting porno actor” award. Screw served as an object of fascination for writers like Philip Roth and Gay Talese, and his publishing activities were all the justification Goldstein needed for his dogged pursuit of sin: “Was I not entitled,” he muses, “even required, to be the George Plimpton of sex; to try everything sexually, to sample the goods of my profession, to write off hookers as tax expenses?” Along the way he made a mockery of the institution of marriage repeatedly, fathered an upstanding son (product of Horace Mann, Georgetown, and Harvard Law) from whom he is now estranged, and fought almost as many court battles against censorship as Lenny Bruce.
Goldstein still pops up in the news occasionally; he made a showing, predictably enough, in issue #2 of Heeb, and as recently as 2005 appeared in the New Yorker after losing his fortune and ending up homeless. Goldstein, broke and angry, is the first to admit that the last few years have been rough, what with his failing health and his imprisonment on Rikers Island for harassing an office assistant. As he says, “When you’re past your time, you’re past your time.” Thanks to celebrity magician Penn Jillette, who pays his rent, Goldstein now lives a chastened life on Staten Island.
Presumably his dire financial straits motivated this embarrassing volume, which the ex-pornographer cobbled together aided by Josh Alan Friedman, a former Screw editor and son of the neglected Jewish novelist Bruce Jay Friedman. A mishmash of Goldstein’s rants, clips from Screw, blurry photos, and sexual apocrypha, the book has been padded, even more than the standard celebrity memoir, with long and irrelevant digressions, including 30 pages on the bizarre but unrelated story of porn star John Holmes. Whatever the folks at Thunder’s Mouth Press paid Goldstein will hopefully help to defray some of the man’s medical expenses; they can be applauded for that, but not for performing their editorial responsibilities on this sloppy piece of work.
It should shock no one that I, Goldstein, overflows with filthy anecdotes, dirty pictures, and four-letter words. What is something of a surprise is that this careless book—the poorly told story of a poorly lived life—manages moments of interest, humor, and even charm. And in that sense, it is a fitting representation of Goldstein’s simultaneously repulsive and compelling personality.