NEW YORK -- Al Goldstein, the bird-flipping publisher of Screw magazine who helped break down legal barriers against pornography and raged against politicians, organized religion and anything that even suggested good taste, died Thursday, according to a friend. He was 77.
Goldstein died at a Brooklyn hospice after a long illness, said the friend, attorney Charles C. DeStefano.
Of all the would-be successors to Hugh Hefner's sexual throne, no one was as out there as Goldstein. Whether taking potshots at sacred cows in the magazine's pages, or placing an 11-foot-tall sculpture of an extended middle finger outside his Florida home, his angry humor, garish attire, numerous divorces and X-rated mind made him an infamous national figure.
"To be angry is to be alive. I'm an angry Jew. I love it. Anger is better than love. I think it is more pure," he said in an interview in 2001. "There's so much to be angry about, because people are ripped off, the election went to the wrong person, the good guys usually lose and society sucks."
To back that anger, Goldstein put his wallet where his mouth was, spending millions of dollars on First Amendment lawsuits, hundreds of thousands running unsuccessfully for sheriff in Florida, and millions more in numerous divorce settlements.
DeStefano remembers Goldstein as an "intellectual who cared about the world and geopolitics." But after a lavish lifestyle, Goldstein fell on difficult times, landing in a homeless shelter and a veterans hospital.
"Up until a month ago he still had that spark," said DeStefano. "In fact, he gave me the middle finger. As he did it, he smiled at me. I knew he was still Al Goldstein inside this shell of a body. I kissed him and held his hand. Many of his friends were like his sons. He had tremendous respect for friendships."
When he co-founded Screw in 1968, the American legal system was embroiled in a battle over what constitutes obscenity. Goldstein never envisioned himself as a champion of free speech, but fought for what he said were his own prurient interests.
"Screw grew from a combination of many factors, chief of which was my own dissatisfaction with the sex literature of 1968 and my yearning for a publication that reflected my sexual appetites," he wrote in the 1971 Screw anthology.
But Goldstein also felt that the cultural and religious establishment had convinced his generation that sex was dirty and turned them into "a lot of embarrassed people who bought nudie magazines on the sly."
The porn magazine's scathing, scatological editorials railed against religious leaders and the government for justifying war while imprisoning erotic magazine publishers. Screw sold 140,000 copies a week at its height.
"I may be making a lot of money, but I really believe I'm doing some good by demythologizing a lot about sexuality," he told Playboy in 1974.
But the law was never far away. During the magazine's first three years, Goldstein was arrested 19 times on obscenity charges. Spending millions to defend himself, he ultimately scored a major victory in 1974 when a federal judge threw out an obscenity case brought against him.
After that the willingness of the government to prosecute such cases waned, ending a period that saw books such as D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover" and Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" banned and kept erotic publications under the counter.
But the victory left Goldstein feeling flat.
"I really need the attention of being arrested, because that means I'm still bugging the establishment, that I'm still gadfly to the state," he told Playboy. "Acceptance of me and Screw would be the kiss of death."
And it may have been the magazine's undoing, as it was soon eclipsed by more explicit publications, like Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine. Goldstein soon found other outlets, and in 1974 launched a sex-oriented cable porn show, "Midnight Blue," which ran for nearly 30 years.
As the poignancy of Screw faded, Goldstein became depressed and angrier.
In 2002, he was sentenced after a wild trial to 60 days in jail for harassing a former secretary with threatening phone calls and editorials. The conviction was later overturned when an appeals court ruled prosecutors had used overly inflammatory language at trial. A year later Goldstein pleaded guilty to harassing one of his four ex-wives with obscene phone messages.
In late 2003, the magazine folded and Goldstein filed for bankruptcy protection. On the upside, he lost 150 pounds following stomach stapling surgery the same year and married his fifth wife, a woman 40 years his junior. Things fell so far, though, that in 2004 he told The New York Times he was forced, at times, to sleep in a car and live in a Florida homeless shelter.
"Anyone who wishes ill on me should feel vindicated because my life has turned into a total horror," he told the Times. He is survived by his wife, Christine, and a son, Jordan.