By way of interviews, photos, and home movies, Mathew Kaufman and journalist Jon Hart’s American Swing humorously chronicles the rise and fall of all-American entrepreneur Larry Levenson, free-sex advocate and self-proclaimed “King of Swing,” while painting a nostalgic – though hardly all-flattering – portrait of the heyday of Plato’s Retreat, New York City’s foremost sex club-disco of the late 1970s.
Earlier in the decade, wholesale meat purveyor Larry Levenson had decided to reinvent himself as a Sexual Liberation Messiah. Even so, it’s debatable whether Levenson actually saw himself as a Man with a Mission, or whether he was just a cunning self-promoter with his eye on the cash flowing into his Upper West Side club in the basement of Manhattan’s Ansonia Hotel.
Some of those interviewed in American Swing do believe that Levenson bought into his own marketing bullshit. Be that as it may, his liberating message to the sexually repressed masses didn’t prevent him from getting involved with the mob, cooking the accounting books, and failing to pay taxes (he saw Plato’s Retreat as a “non-profit organization”). Nor was Levenson all that caring when it came to his relationship with his companion, Mary (no last name is given in the documentary and she was not interviewed), who eventually dropped out of the scene after suffering a nervous breakdown.
Just as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, things go downhill in American Swing when the ’80s arrive. No, not because of video. In addition to getting beaten to a pulp purportedly by Mary’s chauffeur-lover and being slapped (or rather, punched) with an 8-year prison sentence for tax fraud (was he also being penalized for his free-sex ideals?), Levenson watched his club sink when the AIDS crisis struck in full force. By then, drug use had become rampant at Plato’s Retreat, which had also been turned into a haven for prostitutes. Levenson ends his days as a crack-addicted cab driver. He died in 1999.
Now, my chief problem with American Swing is its narrow focus. Despite a brief mention of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s at the beginning of the documentary, and another brief mention later on about the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, Hart and Kaufman all but ignore the city, the country, and the world around Plato’s Retreat.
That is unfortunate, as it would have been illuminating to find out if Plato’s Retreat was a New York City phenomenon – if so, why only there? – or if there were other, however lesser-known, similar establishments elsewhere in the US. (“Swinger clubs have operated furtively for years in most major cities and many small towns” in the United States, as per a Time magazine article of the period.) What about other parts of the world? Were swingers’ club an American invention or something borrowed from the less sexophobic Europeans? And if those clubs existed outside the US – in fact, they did and do exist – were there successful attempts to close them down in the 1980s?
If not, why was New York City’s Health Department successful in (at least temporarily) clamping down on sex establishments? Were they truly concerned about AIDS or were they acting like some sort of moral police? Both? Those questions – and others such as the actual meaning of sexual freedom or the underlying hypocrisy in regard to sex in mainstream American society (today as much as ever) – either go unanswered or are barely touched upon in American Swing.
On the other hand, what I liked best about American Swing is quite likely what will most raise the hackles of prudes and the politically correct crowd. Free sex is presented unapologetically – at times graphically. On top of that, the people reminiscing about the club, whether male or female, instead of feeling dirty, remorseful, or ashamed of their anonymous or semi-anonymous one-on-one or one-on-three or three-on-one or three-hundred-on-one encounters, they openly state their fondness for those long-gone hedonistic days. One woman, for instance, compares her happiness at having been to the now defunct Plato’s Retreat to her having once gotten to the top of the World Trade Center, while another says, “a lot of people don’t have those memories. I have those memories. I can see those faces in front of me now.”
In other words, there’s no redemption, no one finds Jesus, no one proclaims the desirability of monogamy or the saintliness of marriage and family in American Swing. To this day, now all well into middle-age, Plato’s Retreaters remain unrepentant of having had their fun. For many – especially those who wish they had been there and done that, but weren’t and didn’t (except in their erotic fantasies) – that will be unacceptable. I found it refreshing.
Photos: Donna Ferrato (Levenson/Mary), Annie Sprinkle (Plato’s Retreat’s mat room), Allan Tannenbaum (club’s rules and regulations). Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
American Swing (2009). Dir.: Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart. Scr.: Keith Reamer. Interviewees: Buck Henry, Annie Sprinkle, Melvin van Peebles, Ron Jeremy, Jamie Gillis, Helen Gurley Brown, and others.