Al Goldstein: 1936-2013

Al Goldstein, ‘Screw’ publisher and one-time porn king dies at 77 in Brooklyn

 

hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

Al Goldstein didn’t invent sex but he spread it across the pages of his magazine, Screw, with nearly every possible position and permutation.

His promise, greeting readers from within the grainy pages of that first issue, published in New York City in 1968, laid it bare: “If there is a new and thrilling way to make it, you’ll be the first to know.”

He drew the line at only two things: child pornography and sexual violence.

Goldstein died Thursday at 77 in a Brooklyn nursing home of possible renal failure, said Charles DeStefano, his close friend and lawyer.

He was best known in South Florida for giving the finger, literally, to passersby from the backyard of his former home along the Intracoastal Waterway in Pompano Beach. In 1998, he erected an 11-foot, upraised middle digit made out of molded Styrofoam, a prop he scored from the set of the ’90s sitcom, Spin City.

Screw, which followed the considerably tamer Playboy by 15 years, eschewed the girl-next-door Playmate of the Month. Rather, it showcased real people naked or having unromantic sex without the pretense of art.

The first issue was a scant 12 pages, featuring on its cover a bikini-clad model stroking a sizable salami. Inside were ads for adult bookstores, reviews of X-rated films and a field test by the publisher himself of an artificial vagina sex toy.

“We will be the Consumer Reports of sex,” Goldstein’s first editorial boasted.

And so the paunchy pornographer was a one-man reviewer of sex clubs, hookers (er, massage therapists) and swing joints that advertised copiously in the ink-stained pages of his black-and-white tab.

He had sex, lots of it, until he lost sight of his own organ when he once ballooned to 350 pounds. Not to be undone, he simply switched to oral sex, earning the sobriquet, The Tongue, from an appreciative former girlfriend, a B-movie actress from South Florida.

He amassed an enviable empire built on peddling flesh. He didn’t equal rivals Hugh Hefner (Playboy), the late Bob Guccione (Penthouse) or Larry Flynt (Hustler), but he once enjoyed lavish homes in New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam — and South Florida.

His former Pompano Beach waterfront home, which he acquired in the late 1990s, was a 14-room mansion. He lost it as his empire crumbled in 2004.

“He had nine flat-screen TVs when no one else had them,” DeStefano remembers of his pal’s home. “Three of them had CNN, the BBC and European news on. On another, only classic films. And, of course, three had porn on and Al would say to me, ‘This s--- is f------ boring and it’s only on there for show.”

A needlepoint pillow on a sofa was stitched with the Brooklyn-born provocateur’s raison d’etre: “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

“Too much sex, too much food — I want everything. Every experience. Every woman. Every cigar. Every gadget at Sharper Image,” he told the Herald in a 1998 profile in Tropic magazine.

He hated Florida Power & Light “with a passion” because every time the power flicked off at the Pompano Beach home he had to reset 81 clocks and 22 televisions, a tedious task that stole 90 minutes from his day. He went on a rant in Screw, blasting the utility’s CEO and printed contact information for FPL executives to make it easier for his readers to curse at them on his behalf. Goldstein earned “atta boy” back slaps from strangers and a rebuke from the power company, which classified his editorial as “immature and a definite misuse of his publishing rights.”

“Everything was to excess,” recalled reporter Ellie Brecher, who chronicled Goldstein’s South Florida exploits for years. “He was a hoarder of the highest caliber. He didn’t have one or 10 or a dozen of anything. He had hundreds so you’d walk into any room and every single flat surface in that place was crammed. The only flat surface that had nothing on it was the toilet seat. If you needed a pair of reading glasses, in three places in any room, there was a pile of 100 Dollar Store reading glasses.”

Brecher recently retired from the paper but memories of Goldstein who, in 1992, ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in Broward County to oppose 2 Live Crew foe Nick Navarro, still make her burst with laughter and, sometimes, a little grudging admiration.

A little.

“You could be completely grossed out by him, most mainstream human beings would find him to be loathsome,” Brecher said. “But he did a lot for free speech and I think he deserves to be remembered for that as much as for filth-ifying American culture to the best of his ability.”

Sure enough, within a year of Screw’s publication Goldstein, and his then-business partner Jim Buckley, who had invested $175 apiece to publish that first Screw, were in court fighting obscenity charges.

Frontal nude photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was caught surreptitiously via a long lens through bushes on her Hyannisport property, helped Screw sell a half-million copies in 1973. That was the same year the U.S. Supreme Court redefined its definition of obscenity, calling it “material that lacked serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Goldstein himself scoffed at the court’s wording, suggesting that a reader’s “erection was its own redeeming value.”

In 2004, with his porn empire in tatters from free Internet porn sites, Goldstein was hit with a multimillion defamation lawsuit in Broward County. A Brandsmart manager sued him after he publicly blasted the manager for refusing to take back a TV Goldstein deemed defective.

The suit didn’t make the former manager rich, but it wounded Goldstein. “They got a judgment default,” DeStefano said Thursday. “He told me about it three or four years ago. Someone slapped his small Brooklyn bank account. He was slapped with a subpoena. I think Al had $3,111.16 at the time. He was down to his last penny. They grabbed it.”

Little by little, Goldstein had to discard most of his possessions, which included a room inside his Pompano Beach home turned into a humidor with thousands of cigars, including pre-Castro Cuban stogies that could have been worth a fortune.

“He was completely careless about a lot of this stuff,” Brecher remembers. “Ninety percent of [the cigars] had rotted. To Al, it was important to have.”

And have-not. Along the way he discarded five wives and alienated his only child by featuring digitally doctored photos of his son in explicit sexual acts. The reason? Jordan Goldstein, now a lawyer in New York, hadn’t invited Pop to his graduation from Harvard Law School in 2003.

Soon, the elder Goldstein would find himself homeless, eventually crashing in a small Staten Island apartment paid for by his friend, celeb magician Penn Jillette. It’s a fate he prophesied as far back as that 1998 Herald profile. “I’m going to be poor someday. I’ll do something stupid and lose it all.”

Brecher: “He was not unaware of his mishegas [Yiddish for craziness.] He was a tortured soul and he knew it and he told me more times than I can remember, ‘I’m going to die alone and broke on a bus bench.’ And he almost did.”

But his tastes for excess were also lavished on those he befriended.

“I went to a number of dinners where he picked up enormous checks for 20 people he had invited.’’ Brecher said. “He was hugely generous to his friends.”

One of them was restaurateur Sirio Maccioni, founder of New York’s landmark Le Cirque.

DeStefano laughs when he recounts the story of Goldstein’s 10-day stay in Riker’s Island jail in New York, stemming from a harassment charge brought against him by a former employee.

“When Al was temporarily jailed Sirio called me and said, ‘Does Al need money to get out of jail?’ Sirio was tighter than a crab’s ass. He never does that,” DeStefano said.

Maccioni also offered to send food over to Goldstein while he was incarcerated, DeStefano said. “I would venture to say this was the only time Le Cirque would do takeout to Riker’s Island.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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