05/27/2011 11:39 am ET | Updated Jul 27, 2011

Larry Flynt -- Freedom Fighter, Pornographer, Monster?

Larry Flynt has won. He was America's pioneer pornographer -- the man who fought against a still-Puritan nation all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to get vaginal close-ups into the grasp of every young man. This fight got him jailed. It got him shot. It got him rich. And at the end of it, the grandchildren of the people who demanded his arrest for launching Hustler magazine think nothing of clicking on XTube to view a million women splayed a million ways, or downloading their own sex tapes onto the site for everyone to see. He is the founding father of our new pornucopia. His brand of hardcore porn is everywhere, leaking into every email inbox. For him, it's a story of freedom triumphant. But does Flynt's story also show the costs -- and the casualties -- of the Dionysian frenzy he has helped unleash?

He extended our freedom by encouraging people to chuckle and masturbate over scenes of the most horrific unfreedom -- women being gang-raped, young girls being molested, "bitches" being shaved and slaughtered in concentration camps. One of his daughters says he molested her. Another of his daughters reportedly says he asked her to marry him. The cold Puritan morality of the Fifties badly needed to be relaxed -- but in Larry Flynt, did it melt down into a moral Chernobyl?

These are the thoughts that were flickering through my mind as I waited in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco to meet Flynt. I had been scheduled to interview him several times before, but each time it was cancelled at the last minute for mysterious reasons. So when he is suddenly rolled towards me in his $85,000 golden wheelchair, it seems impossible that this man can bear the weight of these questions. In the videos of his from the peak of his fame, he is a red-faced eruption of testosterone, screaming at the camera in long Charlie Sheen-style soliloquies of inspired abuse. Now he is lolling almost lifelessly in a chair. His head is barely able to look up at mine, and his hand is barely able to reach up to shake mine.

He speaks in a very slow, strangulated gargle. "He-ll-o," he says. "You look -- " gasp, long inhalation of breath -- "about nine years old." I smile. He doesn't. He is 69, but looks at once much older and much younger. His face is round and entirely unlined, making him appear to be a gigantic, gnarled baby.

"Mr Flynt will speak to you upstairs, in a conference room," says the huge Italian-American man with a tiny pencil moustache who is pushing his wheelchair. "Not here." I later discover this man -- who looks like one of the minor cops on NYPD Blue -- is called Frank Torres, and describes himself as Flynt's "bodyguard". He wheels Flynt into an elevator, and we stand there in silence. Flynt's head rolls about, as if unsupported. Frank takes out a comb and brushes Flynt's hair, and when he is finished, Frank says: "Thank you, sir."

The book One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History by Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach is available now, published by Macmillan Books

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