The documentary about Bob Guccioni, founder of the Penthouse publishing empire, Filthy Gorgeous, is valuable for the lessons from the story more than because of its status as a doco.
Guccioni lived a remarkable life. Rich and famous because of his love for nude women, the keys to Guccioni’s life were actually ethics and vision.
As I indulged myself in a rare evening of film-watching on my own, I flicked through the depths of the Amazon Prime documentaries, randomly adding things to my watch-list. Stories of the lives of stars, of bicycles, of sunken ships, of business folk.
Among the lot was Filthy Gorgeous, a documentary about Bob Guccioni, the Italian American who founded Penthouse.
I had no intention of watching the documentary immediately. I had no idea of who Guccioni was. In fact, I thought from the blurb and the cover that maybe he was in a totally different industry altogether. Like fashion.
Yet, flicking through my watch list once I’d had enough of working through the streaming platform’s scrolling screens, Filthy Gorgeous was the one film that I couldn’t navigate away from.
So I hit play, or whatever UX designers call it these days. ‘Watch now’ perhaps.
The documentary was fairly unremarkable. It was made like any other average documentary. Lots of talking heads, interspersed with film. It told the story of Bob Guccioni’s life, from boyhood through to death. Each part of it was sectioned off with a quote from Guccioni.
It began in an average way, as you might imagine. Photos of boyhood, comments from people who knew him very well.
Soon enough, though, it had sucked me into the depths of the story.
That didn’t happen because Guccioni was remarkable.
It happened because the Penthouse story was about what it takes to become a successful publisher. It was the story of a person who was determined not to be demeaned. It was the story of an artist. And it was the story of how to rip off someone else’s business model while doing it better, more honestly, and more profitably than the guys who invented it (hi, Hugh Hefner and Playboy).
Guccioni was a painter, first and last. This is why his photographs were always so tastefully taken. He viewed the art of photographing nude women as an opportunity to place them in a painting; just, captured by another form.
Plus, Guccioni genuinely loved women… every bit of women. His mother taught him respect for women at an early age—that every woman was someone else’s sister or mother. As he grew, he learned that men wanted the ‘veil of guilt lifted off them’, commenting that ‘Men like to look. I think if you take that away from them, they won’t enjoy participating as much’. His editorial often dealt with the imperfect man; its appeal was, of course, immense.
Later, Guccioni perceived that women had a veil of guilt over them, too, about their bodies, especially their vaginas. It appeared in public as a type of ferocious and angry censorship.
Guccioni’s view of women as beautiful in all of their forms, no matter which part you were looking at or dealing with, was evident in both his treatment of women, and how women felt after working with him. Women were tastefully shot, never airbrushed or altered. Each one was celebrated for her own beauty.
Penthouse Pet Divina Celeste commented:
‘When I opened up that magazine, I was amazed. Amazed in a good way at what I saw. He created this beautiful person that I wasn’t expecting to see. It’s really… it’s flattering to the utmost. It really was. I wish that I could give one Penthouse day to every woman I’ve ever met.’
In designing Penthouse, Guccioni took the best of Playboy while ensuring that he had:
- the best and hottest writers and journalists of the day, making it a genuinely good read
- an attitude of connoisseurship, in everything from wine to women
- publication first in Britain, making it one of the first magazines of its kind to be published in the UK.
But Penthouse was also one of the first women-led magazines. His Vice President was a woman; his head of advertising sales was a woman (and one of the first women to have such a role); his PA was a woman. Kathy Keeton, the ad sales lady, may have ended up his wife, but she was ultimately the brains and drive behind the Penthouse success. Guccioni had big dreams and great ideas, but he was an artist—not a businessman.
As an editor, Guccioni wanted the magazine to be a great read, and he was fearless. Editorially, his investigative journalists went after everyone from the government, to the CIA; from the medical industry, to big business.
Then, in the 70s and 80s, Guccioni fought (successfully) the censorship that threatened to shut Penthouse down.
The documentary covers all of this and much more, as you’d expect.
But more importantly, Filthy Gorgeous tells you how to become a successful publisher.
First, you must have a fire and drive, however small. In Guccioni’s case it was simply to publish his cartoons in his own magazine. He only ever set his sights on the UK, and never dreamed—not until he held the first issue—that he might have a chance of competing against a behemoth like Playboy in his home (US) territory.
Second, you must have a product that is similar enough to existing publications that it doesn’t ask you to educate the public. You can leverage the business models, formats, shapes, or other conventions of the industry with which to do this. But it is critical that you do it, and never apologise for it.
Third, you must have certain elements and qualities that completely shift the dynamic of the niche. In Guccioni’s case, it was soft, artistic photography that celebrated women’s beauty and sexual energy, paired with the best editorial available. He knew that in the UK market, men wanted to be gentlemen. They wanted to be connoisseurs. They were intelligent, worldly, and interested in analysis, investigative journalism, and the big issues of the day.
Fourth, you must have your own attitude and be fearless about it in the world, thus giving yourself and your readers some known, creative boundaries. In Guccioni’s case, he was fiercely supportive of the Vietnam war and its veterans, and was revolted by their treatment by populations and governments. He was also fiercely pro-freedom: Freedom to photograph the most intimate parts of ladies; freedom to call out any organisation, industry, or government if he felt it was warranted. That’s how he ended up going after—editorially—the medical industry, big business, government, and more. It’s also what drove him to fight censorship, where Hugh Hefner simply bent over backwards in an attempt to be the darling that society wanted him to be.
Fifth, you must have robust ethics of your own, and expect it of others. While Guccioni’s Pets may have slept in the same house as his teenaged boys, there were strict rules: No interaction between family and Pets inside the house. He treated people well, and always sought to find a way to thank them, in his own way. Guccioni’s way was by cooking for them, by watching them enjoy his meals, by having long and interesting conversations over dinner. Robust ethics and perspectives also mean that you will fight to the death if you have to, when you know and can prove that you’re right.
Sixth, create an image for yourself that other people recognise, respect, or wish they could have. Guccioni’s personal style was mindfully created, which meant that every time he turned out in public, he was readily identifiable.
Seventh, create a group of niche publications that serve The Average Reader’s genuine interest in a niche but which bring revenue into the group as a whole. This is how he created Omni, a science journal written for people with high-school level science literacy, rather than PhD-level science literacy. This is how he created Forum, a journal of ‘interpersonal relations’ that was designed to help people sexually: He recognised that there were loads of people without a sexual clue. In fact, Forum was the one of the first ‘contributed content’ magazines, driven almost entirely by readers’ letters, which in turn shaped the editorial for each issue. It was 40 years ahead of the internet’s apparent invention of that content model.
Eighth, never identify yourself as irredeemably part of your publications. Guccioni was, first and last, an artist. He just happened to sit at the helm of a major publishing empire.
Ninth, never ignore technology that might push your audience in a different direction. Because Guccioni did, and it was a huge reason for the decline of Penthouse subscriptions and the decline of his company, even aside from his frivolous investments in later years.
There are some other lessons from this documentary, too.
One of those is to stick with what you know, and do it well. Guccioni attempted to move into hotels and casinos when he was at the peak of his wealth, but he ran up against the Trump empire, which lived and breathed hotels. Needless to say, Guccioni’s own venture fizzled and went out shortly after, taking with it almost all of his wealth.
This year, 2020, has seen the magazine industry spit, frizzle, and fray. It has apparently put enormous pressure on publishers. In some cases, as the Bauer family, that is almost entirely due to appalling management. In others, the ‘rona plandemic was simply a good excuse to wind operations back ahead of large-scale technological change (ahem, Lonely Planet). In others, it was a genuine case of falling advertising revenue (I see you, regional publishers). Nearly all of them fell victim to which Guccioni fell victim: An inability to adapt to different times, with different business models and perspectives.
As pornography became a free and open proposition with the advent of internet porn sites, Guccioni’s advisors started giving him conflicting advice. On the one hand were those pushing him to push boundaries, as he had always done. On the other were those advising him to wind the gratuitousness back and move back into tease.
It’s my opinion that if he had gone back to tease and beauty, then Penthouse may have found itself thriving. It would again have filled a niche that nobody else was capable of filling because of its sharp and intelligent editorial. Those who were just there to jack off could flock to the internet to jack off instead, while retaining a reason to read Penthouse.
The magazines market is perceived to be difficult now, because of the internet. Yet instead of rising to the challenge, publishers are just trying to find new ways of expanding their revenue streams. They add content types, or formats. They add different subscription models. All of them seem to ignore or fail to see the rising tide of independent magazines that are thriving, many of which are based on crowd funding or peer-to-peer subscriptions. The indies can scale back production until an issue is funded, and deliver content that is specific to those whom they serve.
Standing on the outside of much of this industry now, as I have done for the past ten years, what I see is an old guard pushing a tired barrow forwards. And a bunch of upstarts raising dust behind them.
In all cases, though, I see a failure to make the editorial itself so robust that it cannot be ignored.
In Filthy Gorgeous it was clear that the editorial and its art could have been that robust pairing. If Penthouse hadn’t been pursued by the slavering, rabid dogs of puritanical censorship; if Guccioni had been capable of listening to the principles of himself as a young, broke man; if someone had taught him financial literacy and strategic thinking despite fame and fortune; if emerging technology had been viewed as a partner rather than an unknowable threat; then perhaps Penthouse and its offshoots may have survived to blow Playboy out of the water.
But none of this happened.
Instead, we are left with three things:
- A documentary that tells the story and gets out of its own way enough to be more than watchable.
- A story of a passionate character who can teach us a lot about beauty, passion, love, and ethics.
- A deep and educational story about how to succeed and fail as a publisher.
Perhaps if more publishers studied the nuances of empires like Guccioni’s, more of them would champion the human values of honesty and freedom, more would value their people and their subjects deeply and passionately, and fewer would close down due to mismanagement, poor financial literacy, or external pressures.
It’s also possible that I’m just a dreamer, and am pining for a time that is simply fading away.
But I doubt it.