How Liz Flynt, widow of Hustler’s founder, is embracing the title ‘pornographer’
Liz Flynt doesn’t mind being called a pornographer.
Her late husband, Larry Flynt — founder of Hustler magazine and a broader adult-themed entertainment group — liked to proclaim himself a “smut peddler” and a “pornographer who cares.” Since she took the helm of his empire after his death eight months ago, she says, she has taken on all the monikers that defined his rise in the industry, and she vows to continue his rebellious legacy.
“If they are going to give me that label, I’ll wear it,” she said in an interview at Flynt Management Group’s ornate Beverly Hills headquarters.
The privately held group, which has an estimated $500-million value, includes strip clubs, video distribution business , two casinos and an adult broadcasting channel. Flynt said she plans to continue to produce hardcore pornography, open more Hustler retail outlets — with an eye to eventually taking the retail branch public — and expand the company’s newest online gambling service.
Flynt has taken the reins at a precarious time. The way adult entertainment is produced and consumed is fast changing. The company’s two operating card clubs are struggling to rebound from a months-long pandemic shutdown. The print magazines — Hustler, Taboo and Barely Legal — are within a couple of years of closing because of declining revenue.
Hustler and other old-school industry leaders are now forced to compete with websites such as OnlyFans, which distributes adult content created by users who make money through subscriptions or tips.
Hustler doesn’t offer entertainment created by users, Flynt said, because verifying the age of the performers is difficult and Hustler wants to provide only “high-quality content.” Instead, she said she plans to grow audience by expanding the reach of its videos and movies through Hustler TV on more than 500 cable and satellite providers around the world.
“It’s all about numbers and revenue,” she said.
Larry Flynt’s ostentatious office — adorned with Tiffany lamps, Roman columns, velvet-covered furniture and French paintings — remains empty, a shrine to the company’s founder. Flynt works out of an adjoining office where she said she tries to channel her late husband when she is called to make tough business decisions.
“I’m here to maintain his art and his legacy,” she said.
Larry Flynt was 78 when he died of heart failure. He had struggled with health issues dating from the day he was shot by a white supremacist as he was arriving for a 1978 obscenity trial in Georgia. The bullet left him paralyzed, but it didn’t quell his drive to build an empire around one of the best-known names in pornography, Hustler — intended as a raunchier version of Playboy.
He also became a loud, take-no-prisoners advocate for the 1st Amendment.
For all his business success, Larry Flynt counted as his greatest accomplishment a 1988 Supreme Court victory over televangelist Jerry Falwell. The court sided with Flynt that the 1st Amendment protected publishers that target public figures with satire, parody or caricature. The dispute was over a parody ad in Hustler in which Falwell is depicted talking about his “first time.”
Larry Flynt ventured into the business world in 1965 by opening several strip bars in Ohio, which he called Hustler clubs. He began publishing two-page newsletters for the clubs that became so popular that he turned them into a national magazine in 1974. In the late 1990s, Larry Flynt published 30 magazines, including many mainstream titles, such as PC Laptop Computing and Darkroom Photography.
The company now publishes 15 specialty magazines throughout the year, plus the monthly adult-oriented publications, dozens of which are displayed on a desk in the foyer of the 10th floor of the company’s headquarters.
Liz Flynt personally oversees a monthly feature in Hustler that targets a public figure — usually a conservative politician — for criticism, depicting their faces on the backside of a donkey. The magazine took aim in October at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, calling him a “callous right-wing fanatic.”
Flynt is one of the latest women to take on a leading role in what was once a male-dominated industry. For several decades, women have increasingly replaced men in the C-suites of some of the most profitable pornography and adult-oriented businesses.
Christie Ann Hefner, daughter of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, served as chair and chief executive of Playboy Enterprises from 1988 to 2009. Susan Colvin launched one of the largest sex toy manufacturers, California Exotic Novelties, in 1994. Shirley Lara is chief operating officer of Chaturbate, which draws more than 19 million unique visitors a month and is one of the nation’s most popular adult websites.
“One of the most interesting trends in the adult industry over the past 15 years is the increasing presence of female entrepreneurs and CEOs,” said Lynn Comella, professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Women’s role in pornography and the sale of adult-oriented products, such as sex toys, grew even faster after the 2008-09 recession, when adult industry executives made a concerted effort to market to women to boost sales, Comella said. To cater to women, the industry had to hire more women into executive positions, she said.
Liz Flynt, formerly Liz Berrios, met the man who would become her husband, and later boss, when she started working as his nurse in 1992. They married in 1998. It was his fifth marriage. He brought her into his company, first in the talent department, and promoted her to associate publisher in 2000. Larry Flynt made her the sole owner of the company in his trust.
“I think Larry always knew what his plan was by having me here,” she said.
Flynt shrugs off critics of pornography who say it is harmful, particularly to women. She said she shares her late husband’s views that “pornography is a form of art” and considers herself a champion of free speech and freedom of the press.
The business world has grappled with how to handle platforms hosting potentially illicit content. Mastercard, Visa and Discover stopped processing payments to Pornhub, the free-to-use site, last year after a New York Times opinion piece alleged the site hosted videos of rape and child sexual abuse. This year, OnlyFans struggled with its banking relationships over its sexually explicit content.
Flynt declined to discuss specifics of the company’s financials but said her goal is to fulfill her late husband’s wishes of continuing operations as usual and expanding the most profitable elements of the enterprise, such as the retail outlets.
The company is expanding to online gaming too. A new livestreamed poker show, called “Hustler Casino Live,” that lets poker fans watch high-stakes games on YouTube.com has more than 27,000 subscribers.
The pandemic shutdown was especially hard on the two card clubs, Hustler Casino and Larry Flynt’s Lucky Casino, both in Gardena, she said. The company was forced to lay off or furlough nearly half of the company’s 2,000 employees because of the shutdown. Most of the employees have been hired back, she said. The casinos are operating at full capacity, but some players are still hesitant to return, Flynt said.
Budget reports from the city of Gardena offer a glimpse of the financial pain. The city reported collecting $4.9 million in taxes and fees from Flynt’s card clubs in the fiscal year that included the shutdown. That compares with $8.2 million collected in the fiscal year before the pandemic. Fees and taxes from card clubs normally generate about 14% of the city’s total revenue.
Flynt said she is in the process of getting a license to open a third card club, to be dubbed Larry Flynt’s Hacienda, in Cudahy.
The company oversees 37 retail outlets — purveyors of sex toys, lingerie, books and DVDs — with two more planned to open in the next few months. The shops continued operating during the pandemic. Once the company opens at least 50 stores, Flynt said, she may consider taking the retail branch public.
The adult magazines are still making money but “not a huge profit” because of falling advertising and subscriber numbers, Flynt said, which is why she predicts they will exist online only in a few years.
Playboy ceased print publication of its men’s magazine in 2020, and Playboy executives say they are now primarily focused on licensing the Playboy brand, gaming and selling clothing, sex toys and beauty and grooming products.
Ending the print publication of Hustler and other adult-themed magazines will mark a significant turning point for a business empire that was built on print more than 50 years ago, she said.
Flynt is rational about the transition. “You can’t print something that continues to lose money,” she said.