No history of the sexual revolution would be complete without the story of Plato's Retreat, the very first couples-only, heterosexual sex club in the country. Located in the heart of Manhattan, this private sex club made waves as soon as it opened in 1977 and enjoyed several years of notorious success before ultimately being closed in 1985. Under the benevolent rule of Larry "King of Swing" Levenson, Plato's Retreat welcomed anyone and everyone with an interest in the swinger lifestyle, creating a clientele that ranged from the blue-collar worker and housewife to the rich and famous - and many a celebrity, judge, senator, and the like spent time there (including the likes of Robin Leach, Sammy Davis, Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, Saturday Night Live cast members, and Dan Pastorini). At its heart, this truly was the poor man's Playboy Mansion. Quickly developing a culture all its own, virtually anyone - no matter how unattractive - could satisfy their sexual appetites there free of the judgment and morality of the outside world - and women could challenge the entrenched gender role for their sex by becoming the sexual initiators and aggressors society forbade them to be. Levenson became one of the most prominent spokesmen for the swingers' movement, and few can deny his pivotal role in taking what had previously been an underground movement and placing it noticeably in the mainstream. Predictably, the good times lasted only a few years. Levenson did time for tax evasion and could not save his club from decline in the early 1980s; more than anything, though, it was the AIDS scare and New York City's resultant clampdown on sex clubs of all kinds that heralded the end of Plato's Retreat on New Year's Eve of 1985.
As you might suspect, this documentary is for adults only; if it had a rating, I strongly suspect it would be NC-17. That's largely because the presentation takes you inside the club during its heyday - via the memories of many who participated and a number of pretty explicit photos and short video clips of the action. You get the good, the bad, and the ugly, especially as it relates to the swimming pool and the infamous mattress room (which might feature a hundred or more writhing bodies on any given night). You also get plenty of opportunities to hear Levenson himself extol the virtues of his club - on cable access shows, television commercials, and talk show appearances (including Phil Donohue). Most fascinating, though, are the people willing to talk about their experiences all those years ago. Many of them are only identified by first name, but whatever apprehensions they may have had about talking about all of the really wild oats they sowed in their youth seem to fall by the wayside once they start talking.
Somewhat surprisingly, there are really no regrets to be found among the former club members who agreed to be interviewed for this documentary. They all seem to have happy memories of the place, and several obviously see their experience of sexual liberation as having enriched their lives. Many of these interviews are quite entertaining, especially those with the husband and wife managers of the club (although my favorite moment comes when one old man pauses and says - for good reason - "I hope I'm not being too vulgar"). Other interviewees include former employees, friends and family members of Larry Levenson (including his three sons), New York newspaper writers, and legal professionals - so you ultimately get a pretty comprehensive look at the subject at hand from several different perspectives. Rest assured that, despite the risqué subject matter, this is not some cheap and sleazy pseudo-documentary trying to make money off of a sordid topic - it's a very balanced, professional, and insightful look at Plato's Retreat and its place in the history of the sexual revolution.