LOS ANGELES — It's tough to be bashful when you're a pornography titan. So Larry Flynt, who turns 70 on Thursday, doesn't really try. The Kentucky native runs Hustler magazine, a chain of strip clubs and a slew of additional businesses, including a $33 million on-demand movie service acquired this month, from a 10-story tower in Beverly Hills, his name prominently displayed on top.
Flynt grew up in poverty near Salyersville and still has family in and around Magoffin County (his late wife, Althea, is buried in a family cemetery there). Now, he wears a 7-carat diamond ring, and his other fingers are adorned with fat rubies and emeralds. His wheelchair, a necessity since a 1978 assassination attempt left him paralyzed from the waist down, is plated in gold. His other ride? A black chauffeur-driven Bentley with extra tinting and vanity plates: HUSTLR.
So it stands to reason that Flynt would pick one of the showiest restaurants in Los Angeles, Culina at the Four Seasons hotel, as his signature spot. He has eaten breakfast or lunch there most days for at least a decade, camping at Table 29, in the center of the room. The same waitress, Valerie Benchetrit, usually takes his order ("I know how you like your salt, Mr. Flynt"), and Culina recently added a menu item in his honor: Larry Flynt's salad, $27, with Dungeness crab, shrimp, chopped vegetables, egg and garbanzo beans.
"They at first tried to skimp on the seafood," Flynt said, "and I told the chef: 'Don't even try it. Fill that bowl with goodies.'"
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Flynt has stopped traffic at the Four Seasons more than once — sometimes literally, because managers let the Bentley idle in the driveway while he eats. But what was it about this restaurant at this particular hotel? Why every day? Why garbanzo beans?
Flynt, it turns out, has a lot on his mind these days, none of which, or at least very little, involves food. (To answer the restaurant questions: The Four Seasons is close to his office, he's a creature of habit, and who doesn't like a good garbanzo bean?) Over breakfast one day last month, Flynt touched on topics ranging from presidential politics to interior design.
That is, when he wasn't being tended to by one of his two bodyguards, Jose, who popped up without notice to offer a selection of toothpicks, stimulate his boss's circulation by lifting him up by the armpits, provide medication and brush Flynt's hair.
There actually were a lot of interruptions. At one point, a surgically enhanced woman in her early 20s, squeezed into itty-bitty shorts, came teetering over in stilettos.
"I just moved here from Indiana to be an actress, and you are, like, my idol," she said with a giggle.
And there was Jose again, this time carrying a cellphone and whispering in his boss's ear.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California was on the line. Flynt apologized and took the call, saying that the governor, pushing a Nov. 6 ballot measure to increase taxes, probably wanted money for the campaign.
"Governor! You must not have a lot to do if you're calling me," Flynt said, falling silent as he listened the response.
"Have your girl call my office with the information," Flynt said after a couple of minutes.
He hung up and took a moment to contemplate his food (three soft-boiled eggs, a stack of bacon and black coffee) before remarking dryly of the phone call, "Exactly what I was afraid of."
Flynt is a fan of California's governor, but don't get him started on Mitt Romney. In fact, Flynt was preparing to have a little fun, saying he planned to take out newspaper ads offering up to $1 million for information about Romney's unreleased tax returns. (The ads ran in The Washington Post and in USA Today; The New York Times, Flynt said, rejected the ad.)
"I'm a total political junkie," he said, adding that he thought Michelle Obama, who had spoken the night before our conversation at the Democratic National Convention, "was very, very good." But he doesn't have a good feeling about the election.
"I'm not sure Obama can win," Flynt said. "There is racism at work against him. It's disgusting, but nobody has the guts to talk about it."
Flynt knows a thing or two about freedom of speech, having won a landmark Supreme Court case in 1988 over a Hustler cartoon of the evangelist Jerry Falwell. The suit, which clarified that public figures could not recover damages for offensive parodies, had wide implications for the media — which is why Flynt thinks he has trounced Hugh Hefner, the Playboy founder, in terms of legacy.
"History will be a lot kinder to me, I predict," Flynt said, with "due respect to Hef."
He continued: "Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Letterman. You had better believe their attorneys are telling them, 'You can do what you do because Larry Flynt won his case.'"
The court battle formed the core of Oliver Stone's 1996 movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt, which chronicled Flynt's rise from moonshine salesman to defender of free speech. (Flynt was portrayed by Woody Harrelson.)
Hustler magazine is still profitable, but Flynt's company now makes most of its money from pay-per-view adult movies in more than 55 countries, a Hustler clothing line and other licensed businesses.
He has been focused lately on opening a casino on the Las Vegas Strip, having succeeded with one in Gardena, Calif. He plans to open 10 more Hustler stores.
"The concept is to take the adult bookstore and turn it into Saks Fifth Avenue," he said.
Speaking of quality: Flynt recently filed a trademark infringement suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles against two of his nephews, who were selling adult movies under the name Flynt. The Hustler creator argued that his brand was being sullied with "inferior products." He won.
Soon, Flynt's mind was back on his eggs — and the restaurant's new décor. The lime-green chairs were a mistake, he said.
"It's a cold color," he said. "If you want to appeal to people, you want warm, rich colors."
He recently had a similar conversation with his marketing staff over a proposed advertising campaign.
"It was pink and powder blue," Flynt said, chewing on a piece of bacon. "I told them it was the dumbest idea ever. We're not selling diapers. Give me a burgundy. Give me a burnt orange."
With that, he was ready to roll: "Jose!"