Dirtbag Gene Simmons opens the film, flatly stating that every man envies Hugh Hefner. Is that what I was feeling, watching photo ops with frail old Hefner's orange young girlfriends obligingly "keeping him young"? Many young people know only that Hef, an easy-grinning senior in leisurewear, floating on a silicone sea that empties into eternity. Brigitte Berman's premature-eulogy puff-piece documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel, resurrects the younger, charismatically aloof Chicago-boy-made-rich in stock footage, while Hefner narrates along through a lifetime of scrapbooks. The putative subject is Hefner's place on the balance sheet: exploiter or liberator? The peddler of mass-market decadence with a history of editorial stances — pro-integrationist, anti-sodomy laws — salubrious to the Republic is a worthy topic, but it's bypassed for a familiar culture-wars narrative, with jowly HUAC goons under every bed in the 1950s, as Americans wait for the discovery of female orgasm. Pat Boone, conservative radio host Dennis Prager and feminist Susan Brownmiller are there to blow against the wind of the film's conviction that "the new morality," introduced in part by Hefner, is an improvement. But Berman is mostly interested in calling hypocrisy on the other side, making an example of onetime anti-smut crusader Charles Keating, among Hef's other vanquished foes. Playboy "gave us some of the best literature of our time," opines noted literary critic Tony Bennett, among a cast of mostly ridiculous and redundant talking heads. Hefner, the old psych major, wrote the script they're reciting. "Repression" takes a beating, along with abstracted "Puritanism." The inner life of the film's subject, however, is only tactfully skimmed in passing.
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