Secrets of Penthouse’s title promises bombshells about Bob Guccione’s tawdry nudie-mag empire, yet those looking for sensationalism or titillation will be sorely disappointed to discover that A&E’s four-part docuseries (Sept. 4) is devoid of shocking revelations.
Former Penthouse Pets and porn stars Jenna Jameson, Janine Lindemulder, and Sunny Leone wax nostalgic about the heyday of the Playboy rival, but the real focus of this paper-thin non-fiction affair is Guccione’s children, two of whom participate and all of whom the mogul wound up alienating thanks to his prioritization of money and power over family. Given the decidedly unflattering portrait it paints, few will find themselves pouring one out for the late smut titan.
A Brooklyn native from a Sicilian clan who grew up just across the Hudson in New Jersey, Guccione had his paradigm-changing epiphany while living with his second wife, Muriel Hudson, in London. Inspired by Muriel’s success selling pinup postcards of bikini-clad women through the mail, Guccione founded Penthouse, a direct competitor to Hugh Hefner’s gold-standard adult magazine that distinguished itself via its “edge”—namely, its decision to show women in their entire full-frontal glory. Penthouse was the more explicit and overtly sexual of the two newsstand publications, and it was an immediate hit, catapulting Guccione to the heights of fame and fortune. At his peak, he was one of the richest men in the world, replete with the largest private residence in Manhattan: a 22,000-foot estate that featured an indoor swimming pool, solid gold-lined bathroom fixtures, regal staircases, and $100 million of art by, among others, Picasso, Chagall, and Matisse.
With his deep, raspy voice, hairy chest, gold chains, and imposing frame, Guccione was a charismatic hedonist entrepreneur, as is demonstrated by archival interviews from The Arlene Herson Show during his prime, and Charlie Rose during the darker end-times. At the start, he was Penthouse’s chief photographer and charming salesman, and he took advantage of his position to make his entire world about sex. Though he was loyal to his longtime partner (and third wife) Kathy Keeton, who was also his bedrock business partner, Guccione lived the life of a man who had everything—women, luxuries, attention—at his fingertips. What he didn’t do, apparently, was protect himself, his brand, or his relationships, and much of Secrets of Penthouse is dedicated to cursorily detailing his callousness, selfishness, and recklessness.
When it comes to eye-opening surprises, the best A&E’s docuseries can muster is that Guccione once showed teenage Pet Jane Hargrave a bestiality video (which taught her that pigs have corkscrew penises) and had Pet and part-time flame Sheila Kennedy give him a golden shower in his bathtub. For a man who dedicated his life to pushing public pornographic boundaries, these are rather tame tidbits, and they’re just about all that Secrets of Penthouse has to offer in terms of salaciousness.
Also discussed are Guccione’s many follies and troubles, beginning with Caligula—an epic erotic-movie flop about the Roman emperor that starred Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, and Helen Mirren and cost him $17 million—and a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Anneka DiLorenzo, who claimed that Guccione pimped her out to clients. He additionally fell on his face trying to build the Penthouse Boardwalk Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, which lost him upwards of $160 million and was so obviously foolhardy from the outset that pal Donald Trump cautioned him against it (and eventually purchased the property and turned it into part of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino).
Secrets of Penthouse revisits further Guccione blunders, including his fatal inability to change with the times and embrace the internet, as well as his (professional, if not moral) triumphs, such as controversially publishing photos of celebrities like Madonna and then-Miss America Vanessa Williams. All of this is standard biographical material, however, and while more than a few Penthouse insiders participate, it’s handled with superficial sketchiness. The man presented by the docuseries is magnetic and creative, forward-thinking and blinded by egomania, and self-indulgent and self-sabotaging. Everyone agrees he commanded a room and could convince people to do his bidding. Nonetheless, there’s nothing particularly fascinating about his strengths or weaknesses.
The latter often take center stage in Secrets of Penthouse courtesy of Guccione’s daughter Nina and youngest son Nick. The two speak at length about their ups and downs with their father, who showed them little love and even less support, and was quick to cut off anyone—most notably, his elder sons Bob Jr. and Tom—if he suspected betrayal. According to Nina and Nick, Guccione was not around, had no interest in them, and had no faith in their abilities. As a result, they desperately craved his attention and approval and sought it by working at Penthouse, with Nick showing some flair as a photographer and videographer, and Nina assuming a variety of positions (culminating with her taking over the magazine) for which, by her own admission, she was not qualified. Nick tearfully describes his dad’s heartlessness, and Nina badmouths his treatment of her and exploitative objectification of women, as well as remarks upon the gross strangeness of growing up in a household where raunchy sex was the family trade.
That Guccione was both a larger-than-life pioneer, crummy parent, and business failure—losing his entire fortune by the end of this life, such that he had to move into his mother’s modest New Jersey house—has all been well-documented and isn’t very captivating. Likewise, Secrets of Penthouse exhibits little desire to seriously plumb his cultural role and impact. Jameson views Penthouse and porn as empowering, and Lindemulder hints at some regrets about her professional path (considering its ramifications on her later life), but the docuseries barely dives into those choppy waters. Guccione made a mint in the ’70s by stylishly showing women’s pubic hair, took some lumps and came out on top in his ’80s battles with evangelicals, and ultimately was so careless and inept with his empire in the ’90s and 2000s that he ruined it all. As far as Secrets of Penthouse go, he was an alluring visionary and unapologetic jerk who helped mainstream porn—a legacy whose dubiousness is no secret.