‘Secrets of Penthouse’ revisits a man who prospered by making erotica more explicit
As A&E doc reports, the cartoonishly lascivious Bob Guccione found fame and fortune as a publisher but lost every penny and alienated his children.
On the heels of A&E’s hit documentary series “Secrets of Playboy,” now comes the four-part docuseries “Secrets of Penthouse.” My first reaction was to wonder if this was really necessary, as we know Penthouse was the racier, more graphic competitor to Playboy, with the gravel-voiced, cartoonishly lascivious Bob Guccione often coming across as a sleazier version of Hugh Hefner. What more is there to tell?
As it turns out: a LOT.
At one point, Penthouse was the most successful magazine in the history of publishing and Guccione was one of the wealthiest men in the world — but the often toxic dynamic between Guccione and his grown children is deeply reminiscent of the fictional Roy family from “Succession.” We learn how Guccione’s three sons and his daughter were constantly vying for their distant father’s approval, only to find themselves shunned time and again. (Guccione’s eldest daughter, who died in 2020, is not a part of the narrative here.)
A four-part docuseries airing at 8 p.m. Sept. 4-5 on A&E, and streaming the next day on various platforms.
“I didn’t have a father,” says Nick Guccione in the premiere episode, later adding, “My dad never took me seriously. He looked at me like a loser, and maybe had a right to, I don’t know.” Meanwhile, Guccione’s daughter Nina laments that the first time her father hugged her, he was 72 years old, in poor health and a broken man.
Told in mostly neutral fashion, with gimmicky graphics driving home certain points, “Secrets of Penthouse” follows a linear timeline, taking us through Guccione’s origins story, which starts with him wanting to be an artist but turning to publishing in the 1960s, with Penthouse directly attacking Playboy in newspaper ads and offering more explicit nudity. (Penthouse centerfolds were known as “Pets.” Pets.)
As sales skyrocketed, Guccione reveled in his newfound fame and fortune, often appearing on TV with his shirt unbuttoned, a tangle of gold chains glimmering, as he alternately fascinated and repelled interviewers with comments along the lines of, “I can’t photograph a girl who doesn’t excite me.” Guccione built an enormous townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, filled the walls with artwork from the likes of Picasso, Chagall, van Gogh and Matisse, and accumulated tremendous wealth — which he then proceeded to squander on bad investments, from a luxury hotel in Yugoslavia to a gambling “palace” in Atlantic City that cost some $145 million but never got off the ground. (We’re told Donald Trump informed Guccione the gaming board was never going to award a license to the publisher of Penthouse magazine; he wasn’t wrong.)
Another debacle: the 1979 bomb “Caligula,” an erotic historical drama produced by Guccione and starring big names such as Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren, the latter seen on set telling us, “It [has] this mixture of art and genitals in it.” Suffice to say the mixture did not work, in spectacularly awful fashion.
The Penthouse empire crumbled through Guccione’s fiscal irresponsibility, and some deeply troubling sexual allegations. Along the way, his grown children would work for the company — only to be completely shut out at the mercurial whims of their father. In the end, it was all gone. The publishing empire, the paintings, the cash, the house in Manhattan, all of it.
Bob Guccione died of lung cancer in 2010 at the age of 79. In the final episode, Nick Guccione visits his father’s resting place in New Jersey, a simple grave marker, for the first time, and says, “God bless you Dad, love you, miss you,” but adds, “I wish we could have been closer.”