Mr. and Mrs. Flynt are having a domestic. It's not a full-blown ding-dong, but a midlevel verbal skirmish, the sort of thing that lies behind many a loving relationship. "Larry," she calls down the hall of their sumptuous apartment on the 10th floor of the imposing Flynt building in Beverly Hills, Calif., "why didn't you tell me you wanted me here for the photo? I could have got ready."
In the dining room Flynt is parked in his gold-plated wheelchair, staring out the window, possibly at the view of the city stretched out before him. He is a curious sight, his hair and skin almost matching his peach-colored polo shirt. On his wrist he wears a delicately inlaid watch; his elaborate rings sit on surprisingly long puffy fingers, their length accentuated by manicured nails.
"What did she say?" he croaks in his nearly inaudible high-pitched wheeze, heavily laced with the wide-open twang of his native Kentucky.
Hal, Flynt's bodyguard and wheelchair wheeler, approaches. "Nothing," he says. "Don't worry about it. It's a man and wife thing."
"Why wasn't she ready? Did she say she didn't know?"
"I told you, don't worry about it. I'm not getting involved," says Hal.
Suitably attired, Mrs. Flynt, Larry's onetime nurse Liz Berrios (often now described as the power behind the throne), appears for her photograph. The couple lean awkwardly together, mimicking the pose on the oil painting hanging behind them. Liz smiles professionally and holds Larry, who wheezes and splutters, enduring his hardship with a stoicism that looks exhausting.
"Come on Larry," she says, digging her fingers into his neck. "Smile."
It's just as well that nobody is actually chucking pots and pans around. The smallest flying object could cause incalculable damage here. At every turn, behind every marble column, standing atop every antique inlaid mahogany table, a Tiffany lamp awaits, a trap laid for the clumsy and the careless. Looking down from the walls are countless impressionist reproductions, all a little too bright and a little too clean to be the real thing, as if someone had said: "Do me a picture like that, but ... make it more in focus."
The effect, familiar from Milos Forman's 1996 film "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," is of a kitsch palace, a hotel lobby striving to be a museum or some lavish pimp's parlor. Flynt, of course, would not choose to describe himself as a pimp. He is, he insists, a "smut peddler." He has also been called a "bottom-feeder," an epithet that amuses him greatly. But his preferred formulation is: "Pornography is my business, politics is my hobby."
Flynt's latest foray into politics comes with the publication of his third book, "Sex, Lies and Politics -- the Naked Truth." It is a rabblerousing romp through the ills and hypocrisies of contemporary American politics, an attack on the cronyism and incompetence of George W. Bush and the forces that put him where he is today. But it is also a lament for the betrayed ideals of the American body politic.
"I think other than the Civil War and the First and Second World Wars, the six years that this book covers is probably the most significant part in the history of our country," he says. In the book, we are treated to some of the key anti-Bush themes from the past few years: Newt Gingrich and the hypocrisy of the Republicans; the Democrats' weakness for money; the inadequacies of America's "poodle press"; Enron; Chevron; Halliburton. It is a familiar but still enlightening litany. Flynt argues that he is there to join the dots.
"I never, from the very beginning, ever compromised my core beliefs," Flynt says. "I've been in prison four times, shot and paralyzed" -- by a man who took exception to a photo spread about interracial sex -- "and I figured at this point, what are they going to do to me? So I decided to devote what is left of my life to expanding the parameters of free speech."
His struggle for free speech was documented in the Forman film, an account of Flynt's various legal battles, most famously his five-year tussle with evangelist Jerry Falwell, about an ad that suggested he had had sex with his mother. Falwell sued him for defamation; Flynt countersued for copyright infringement. It ended in a victory for Flynt in the Supreme Court, seen by many as one of the most important decisions in favor of free speech and the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Flynt makes an awkward champion of liberal causes, his professional activities -- he makes Richard Desmond seem like William Rees-Mogg -- raising the hackles of many who support the broad intention of his political campaigns. "If people don't like what I do, they need to get a life," he says, slurping on his third glass of green Gatorade, grunting as he crunches the ice. "I'm liberal on social issues, all social issues, but I'm a fiscal conservative. That may sound paradoxical in a sense, but if I don't have the money in my account, I don't write a check. I think the government should be the same way. We should be fiscally responsible."
Flynt's personal fiscal responsibility has seen him grow to be an extremely wealthy man, adept at shifting his business to keep ahead of the changing times. The smut peddler has moved from club owner to magazine publisher to modern media entrepreneur, with Internet, film production and retail divisions all outstripping the thing that made his name, Hustler magazine. He also runs an eponymous casino in Los Angeles, where Flynt himself can often be found betting his life away at poker. One estimate suggests he loses $300,000 per month at the game.
Flynt, who was born in Kentucky in 1942 in what was then the poorest county in the U.S., says he is not tempted to go into politics as a profession. "Politics is the art of compromise, and I've never seen anything worthwhile accomplished by a compromising person," he says with a rare smile. But he has stood for office, once for president, and last year for governor of California in the election won by Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I can see the flaws in our system and I don't have the temperament to be part of a political party," he says. "And who would vote for a pornographer who's an atheist, anyway? The different times I've run for political office I've always just done it to use the platform so I can get my message out."
His message in the current election is clear: Bush and his cronies are corrupt liars who have misled the American people. "There are diehard Bush loyalists who believe everything he tells them, and it's scary," he says. "It's really frightening because this guy's the most unqualified person to ever sit in the Oval Office. He can barely speak the native language. Now he talks to God all the time. I'm just afraid they might get their messages screwed up, and with his thumb on the [nuclear] button that doesn't make me too content."
Flynt's next book is about "something I know quite a lot about," the sexual revolution. But before that he has to oversee his expanding retail empire. A handful of stores in the U.S., including a swanky emporium on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, complete with espresso bar, have proved a profitable addition. Flynt is also opening two stores in the U.K., although he is fairly hazy on their precise whereabouts. "I just make the store really nice and really plush so both men and women will feel really comfortable shopping there," he wheezes. "The first we'll open in the second largest city in the United Kingdom, about two hours north of London." Birmingham? "Yes, Birmingham. And the second one is in London, right next to Piccadilly Square."
Britain too offers possibilities for him to pursue his hobby of politics. "I really liked Tony Blair when he became prime minister," says Flynt. "But the way he's behaved during this Iraq war, I just lost all respect for him. I don't know if he thought he would benefit from it, in terms of solidifying his power base. He's no Winston Churchill."
Political hypocrites have been warned.