Hugh Hefner, America's most celebrated and legendary pornographer, has less and less reason to celebrate. His Playboy magazine empire is crumbling -- he may even be bought out by competitors -- and his prototypical leering pose with girls young enough to be his great-granddaughters is now just plain creepy. His 2009 Christmas card featured 83-year-old Hefner standing between two 20-year-old twins who are his newest live-in girlfriends. Each was wearing a pink tank top with "Hef" painted on it in white. Hefner's women are forever the plastic toys under his tree.
Into this sad picture comes documentary filmmaker Brigitte Berman with a gushy new two-hour infomercial titled "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel." How gushy is it? Washington Post critic Michael O'Sullivan found "the Hugh Hefner in this movie is Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and William Kunstler all rolled into one."
In fact, Berman is so in love with her subject's cultural and political influence, she told one interviewer that when the news came out that Martin Luther King Jr. had cheated on his wife, Coretta, "that never affected 'I have a dream,' so I found it really curious" that Hefner couldn't be seen more as a civil rights hero and less as a seedy porn king.
In the film, Hefner is obsequiously compared to King. Newsman Mike Wallace suggests he paved the way for President Obama, and all that hope and change. Bill Maher even compares him with Jackie Robinson, as the pioneer who took all the arrows. Trying to compare breaking the color line in baseball with being the first to publish the comic strip "Little Annie Fanny" is a bit of a historical stretch.
Hefner is so full of himself that he's made piles and piles of now-yellowed scrapbooks of his career. Most of the film is Hefner paging through his scrapbooks, dictating to his smitten documentarian how he wants his legacy defined. This film really looks like Hefner puffing up his own reputation before he loses his power to define it -- a last shill and testament. There is, in its long, fawning two-hour parade, some tiny breaks for conservatives Dennis Prager and Pat Boone to get a few words in edgewise, but that's wiped out by the sugar high Hefner's giving himself in this film.
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