Every day, in the late 1990s and early ’00s, Al Goldstein gave his neighbors the finger. For about six years, he casually greeted the boaters and residents of Pompano Beach, Florida, with an 11-foot-tall foam statue of the obscene gesture, daring those around him to infringe on his free speech rights. But for the infamous pornographer — who arguably operated on the fringe of an already seedy industry — it ranks low amongst his laundry list of dirty deeds.
Goldstein’s tale begins as so many New York stories do: from humble beginnings in Brooklyn. Born in 1936, he grew up in a postwar Williamsburg that has long since disappeared — an enclave of working-class Jewish families far removed from the cashed-up hipsters who call that neighborhood home today.
From an early age, Goldstein was attuned to the art of the hustle. But his path was unfocused. Despite showing potential in college (he captained the debate team at Pace, and interviewed Allen Ginsberg for the school newspaper), and a stint as a photojournalist for the army, he seemed to prefer being nimble in the job market. At various times in the 1960s, Goldstein sold insurance, peddled encyclopedias, wrote articles for the New York Free Press, and even drove a yellow cab. There wasn’t a gig in town that he wouldn’t milk for a buck. And he was smart enough — certainly brazen enough — to capitalize on what was happening more in the culture at large.
As New York’s sexual revolution entered full swing, with adult cinemas and cheekily oblique “massage parlors” popping up throughout the city, Goldstein managed to convince his friend and Free Press editor Jim Buckley that there was enormous opportunity to cover the commercial sex scene. Both men invested $175, and together in November 1968, they published Screw, a 12-page tabloid containing pornographic film reviews, nude photos, and even a consumer report by Mr. Goldstein of an artificial vagina.
For cheap thrills, there was no better rag than Screw at the time: as opposed to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, which purported to cover sex with a certain degree of class and taste, Screw was downright shameless. “We promise never to ink out a pubic hair or chalk out an organ,” proclaimed the magazine’s mission statement. “We will apologize for nothing. We will uncover the entire world of sex. We will be the Consumer Reports of sex.” Its cheaply printed black-and-white format eschewed art-directed shoots in favor of vulgar, explicit pornography. It wasn’t just gritty, it was the gutter — especially in 1973, when it published nude paparazzi photographs of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. New Yorkers clutched their pearls, but that issue is rumored to have sold over half a million copies.
But with his newfound fame as the Smut King of New York came controversy — and legal challenges. That same year, the United States Supreme Court decided in Miller v. California that obscene materials were not entitled to First Amendment protection, and “obscenity” included anything that lacked “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” This conservative interpretation empowered federal, state, and municipal prosecutors across the country to bring charges against Goldstein.
Goldstein, known for being vindictive, capitalized on these legal woes by publishing withering editorials about his accusers, and even created composite photo collages depicting his legal opponents as stars in his pornographic editorials. Petty as it was, this tantrum wound up becoming a “get out of jail free” card.
The feds, determined to put him away, directed several postmasters in Wichita, Kansas — a deeply conservative state — to order copies of Screw. Upon delivery, the government charged Goldstein with a dozen counts of obscenity, and he faced up to 60 years in prison. But his lawyers were able to argue that since Goldstein’s editorials were about his legal accusers, they were sufficiently “political” under Miller, and, after three years of litigation across two separate trials, he was vindicated. To celebrate, he flew the jury to New York City for a celebratory party at the swinger’s club Plato’s Retreat.
Throughout his troubles, Goldstein kept his business moving. In 1974, he launched Midnight Blue, a thrice-weekly public access TV show that ran for almost 30 years on Manhattan’s Channel J, on which he interviewed porn stars, and ran ads for bordellos and sex hotlines. (Goldstein found First Amendment loopholes in federal regulations which made it impossible for the cable system to refuse to air his program.) And in ’77, Screw ran an advertisement for “Al Goldstein’s Cinema,” a porn theater located on 8th Avenue near Times Square, which operated for a time, yet did not appear in a directory of porn theaters that Screw published in 1979.
He eventually became rich enough to afford a town house on the Upper East Side and the home in Pompano Beach. But his vindictive temperament poisoned his personal life. He married and divorced five times. And when his only son, Jordan, disinvited him from his graduation from Harvard Law School, Goldstein published doctored photos of Jordan having sex with men and even his own mother, Goldstein’s third ex-wife.
By the late ’90s and early ’00s, Screw, which had once been a scrappy media pioneer in bringing sex work into the mainstream, began to falter. Goldstein never adapted to the rise of the internet as his competition did. He tried and failed to open a brothel on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. The counterculture hype of publishing porn in the ’60s and ’70s had waned, and in his later years, Goldstein shifted from infamy into obscurity.
In 2003, a series of financial woes caused Goldstein to lose his company, as well as his homes in Manhattan and Florida (buh-bye, middle finger statue). Smut had provided stability for Goldstein, and without it he was forced back into taking whatever jobs he could get. Over the next several years he worked as a greeter at the Second Avenue Deli; in catering sales for a bagel store; and even had a stint blogging for Booble, a website covering the porn business. Glimmers of his past life remained, but it was, by any measure, a long and heavy defeat.
He bounced from living with his former in-laws in Queens to homeless shelters and various Veterans Affairs hospitals. At one point, he was arrested for stealing books from a Barnes & Noble. In the end, he lived between nursing homes and a small apartment in Far Rockaway, Queens, financially supported by his friend, illusionist Penn Jillette. But a sense of hustle and hard work never left Goldstein — although he never used it in his later years, he kept his taxi license active until his death in 2013.