In the latest documentary by a son of a subject, first-time-feature filmmaker Michael Lee Nirenberg interviews his father, Bill Nirenberg, about his days working as the creative director for Hustler magazine. It’s only one part of the larger chronicle of the pornographic publication detailed in the film, titled Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story, and the two set-ups involving this family affair are rare, frustrating moments where the director unnecessarily appears on camera. Sometimes he’s in the same shot as Dad, while other times he cuts to himself as the interviewer. Surprisingly none of it comes off as too self-indulgent, although those sequences do feel too personally involved and nepotistic given how the doc is not meant to be specifically about either one of them.
A film about Hustler shouldn’t be as boring as this one is, and it’s mainly due to the accounts of the elder Nirenberg, and how much time is devoted to his perspective, that constantly keeps Back Issues from being more interesting. Others on board to talk about the magazine and brand from its inception include Larry Flynt himself, plus co-founder Jimmy Flynt, fellow and sometimes rival porn publisher Al Goldstein, legendary adult film stars Ron Jeremy and Nina Hartley, notable former Hustler employees Allan MacDonell, Paul Krassner and Chris Gore and photographer Suze Randall, who offers memorable tidbits such as how she glued back models’ labia to better get those trademark Hustler “pink” shots. But we keep coming back to the filmmaker’s father talking about his distaste for the office politics while working on and off for Flynt.
At least he and some of the other long- and short-term company men keep the documentary from being anything resembling a puff piece. Not that the film itself is ever critical of Larry Flynt or Flynt Publications, but it features a lot of interviews with guys who do have negative things to say, at least about various periods and people over the years. The fact that a lot of these insider bits, as well as comments from Flynt’s conservative adversaries (Ohio prosecutor Simon L Leis, Jr., for one), are among the dullest moments is almost inconsequential if we do want to recognize that they keep the thing balanced.
The question is whether that should matter when younger Nirenberg proves to have no point to why he’s made Back Issues except to maybe acknowledge his dad’s involvement and to simply tell the most straightforward story of a groundbreaking magazine. And he’s not a good enough storyteller for that to be all he’s got.
With many of the interviews, the director hardly indicates he’s interested in the person he’s got on camera. This is evidenced by their being framed off center with distracting materials filling the shot in ways I’d consider altogether disrespectful. The worst is with defense attorney Paul Cambria, who sits at a table beneath a large portrait photograph of the late Althea Flynt, which is irrelevant and yet draws the focus of our attention (see the still below).
Larry Flynt has two set-ups, one where he’s buried by a lot of desk clutter in the foreground (see the header image above) and one where he’s dominated by the emptiness of a long boardroom table before him. Some of the busier frames seem attempts at making more visually rich shots rather than just giving us talking heads, and it’s a common mistake for new documentarians. Yet Nirenberg is an artist by trade, credited for scenic work on such movies as Tower Heist and The Wrestler and the TV series Girls. Maybe that’s not a reason he should’ve known better. These shots do look nice as stills. They just don’t work for a film.
Back Issues is the sort of documentary that shows that having great access isn’t all one needs to deliver a worthwhile film. Nirenberg might’ve been excused had he not reminded us so often why he got the access — worse than appearing on camera for no reason in shots with his father are times when interviewees use the phrase “your dad” in their anecdotal contributions. We shouldn’t hear that stuff, because it distances us as viewers to feel as if the story is told to and for the director, not us.
One person who is almost a good enough get to make up the difference is Joseph Paul Franklin, the would-be-assassin of Flynt who spoke on camera from prison prior to his execution last fall. He explains the reason for shooting the publisher, how it was specifically due to one particular photo spread and why the attempted murder didn’t go exactly as planned. The pettiness of Franklin’s motive fits in well with the lesser drama of some of the other people in the doc while also putting them and the larger issues had with Flynt into perspective regarding the levels of taste and disapproval with the porn industry and Flynt’s publication specifically.
It’s rare that I prefer and recommend a dramatic version of a true story, but that’s the case with Milos Foreman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt versus Back Issues. However, the former is mainly favored because it has a real point. It’s about the First Amendment and the trials of Flynt relevant to that. It’s kind of more about Ed Norton’s fictionalized and composited portrayal of Flynt’s attorney(s) and the courts than it is about Flynt, not to mention Hustler. The documentary gives a more genuine chronicle of the man and his magazine, plus it’s a lot more respectful to the character of Althea and her responsibility as co-publisher. The odd and disappointing thing is that Nirenberg doesn’t cover much beyond what Foreman did nearly 20 years ago. Flynt and Hustler’s success in the Internet age is an especially important part of the history, but the film rushes through that chapter very briefly in the end.
Back Issues has some decent moments and sound bites and has its place as the clarifying doc option next to the Flynt “biopic,” but it really drags, especially in the first half. It’s a mild, mostly insignificant and fairly deficient documentary that might appeal to some very curious fans, if they don’t mind its ironic censoring of vaginas, but there’s not much value to the film outside of that to anyone outside the Nirenberg or Flynt families.