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on May 24, 2009
Anyone who ventures into "American Swing" expecting to see a documentary on Benny Goodman is in for one hell of a rude awakening - and that's putting it mildly. For the "swing," in this case, actually refers to the "wife-swapping" phenomenon that swept through middle-class suburbia in the 1970s. And no figure did more to popularize that trend than Larry Levenson - the "King of Swing" as he came to be called - whose "live sex club," Plato's Retreat, located in Manhattan`s Upper West Side, served as the epicenter for so much of the action.

Let it be stated right up front that this eye-opening documentary is not for the prudish or the easily offended, for its footage is graphic and its language raw, often akin in its look to crude 1970`s porn. It takes us straight into the heart of a scene that became famous for its flagrant nudity, its unbridled group sex, and - if the eyewitness accounts are to be believed - its really bad food (apparently, the smorgasbord that kept bringing the people in was of quite a different kind!). Directed by Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart, the film features interviews with many of the now-aging club regulars who happily regale us with tales of their personal escapades there. A number of celebrities who frequented the club, as well as certain reporters and broadcasters who covered the beat at the time are also interviewed.

"American Swing" is most interesting as a social document, showing how the "free love" ethos espoused by the hippies in the 1960's expanded into the mainstream a decade later. Suddenly, ordinary businessmen and housewives, truck drivers and longshoremen could partake in the life of the sexually liberated. In his own mind, Levenson sincerely believed that he was serving a salutary purpose with his club, providing couples who didn't want to be stuck in a monogamous relationship with a more honest alternative to "cheating."

It is not the intention of Kaufman and Hart to judge the people who took part in what Plato`s Retreat had to offer, but neither is it their intention to shy away from some of the less savory consequences that eventually overtook many of them: principally, the diminution of romance, rampant drug abuse, and the spread of disease. In fact, it was the sudden appearance of AIDS in the early 1980s that brought the decade-long love-train to a screeching halt. That, along with Levenson's own troubles with the IRS (including time spent in prison for tax evasion) and possible dealings with the mob, is what eventually brought an end to the place - and to the era of licentiousness that helped to spawn it.

So, was Levenson a trailblazing sexual revolutionary who made it possible for otherwise ordinary middle-class people to live out their wildest fantasies? Or was he an emotionally stunted individual who cast away the mores of society in a bid to fulfill his own kinky desires and make a kingdom and a name for himself in the process? To their credit, Kaufman and Hart provide no easy answer to those questions, neither for the prigs in the audience nor for the libertines.

All same for the movie itself - for even though Levenson's life ends sadly, "American Swing" does not play out like the typical cautionary tale. For, in the end, we are left to reach our own conclusions as to whether Plato's Retreat was in reality a hedonistic paradise or merely a moral cesspool - or, indeed perhaps, a little of both.

The only thing you can really do is check out "American Swing" and make that determination for yourself.
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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.
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"American Swing"
(Magnolia Pictures, 2008)
(NOTE: some spoilers included below)
This is an utterly compelling documentary about an amazingly seedy topic, the life and death of a popular New York sex club called Plato's Retreat, which catered to heterosexual "swingers" during the height of the disco era. It was, apparently, the equivalent to the swinger scene what Studio 54 was to the gay-socialite set, a place of immense personal liberation and shocking group debauchery. I used to think of the heyday of "wife-swapping" as being in the early and mid-1960s, but this saga took place in the musty ashes of the '60s Sexual Revolution, as the hippie era gave way to a more generalized hedonism and self-centeredness in American society. The film largely shies away from an examination of the larger changes in society at the time, sticking closely to the immediate drama of the Plato club, and indeed, it's a pretty compelling story. It's also an unsettling topic: I had no idea that straight (hetero) society had such an out-there free-sex culture, and while this is fascinating in theory, seeing it made plain (there is quite a bit of archival footage) is a little nauseating, if the truth be told.

As the story unfolded, I assumed that the advent of AIDS and HIV disease would be what would do the club in, and while it did factor in, it was actually the club's ties to organized crime that rocked its foundations: the club's owner, Larry Levinson, went to jail for nearly three years for tax evasion in the early 1980s. Amazingly, the venue survived for several years until finally being closed down by the City of New York, as the AIDS crisis intensified and it became clear that unsafe sex was unsafe no matter what sexual orientation was involved. What makes this film so watchable, though, is the parade of characters -- bouncers, clubgoers, porn stars, journalists -- who are interviewed decades later, and who speak of Plato's Retreat with both refreshing candor and sincere, unrepentant, misty-eyed nostalgia. It's a slice of American history, and a portrait of a time and culture that seems profoundly remote now. Certainly worth checking out. (Joe Sixpack, Slipcue film reviews)
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In recent years we've witnessed the emergence of a new movie sub-genre that might be called "Sexual-Social Deviant as Hero." Among the more notable entries are Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," based on the career of porn star John Holmes, and a number of others the titles of which have slipped from memory almost as quickly as their subjects. Some who come to mind are Larry Flynt (publisher of Hustler magazine), Howard Stern (ground-breaking shock jock), and Bob Crane (TV series star who was a sex addict and victim of an unsolved brutal murder).

"American Swing" is definitely in the same vein, except it's unlikely that it showed on many theater screens. It's a low-budget documentary about a libertine-crusader, Larry Levenson, who was the founder of Plato's Retreat, the NYC swingers' club that might be seen as a metaphor for heterosexual sex in the seventies (and a bit beyond). If you never got around to reading Gay Talese's comprehensive, authoritative best-seller "Thy Neighbor's Wife" (1981, though it's currently available on Amazon in an updated 2009 edition), "American Swing" might seen as the Cliff's Notes version (though Talese is admittedly one of America's talented writers--check out his essay on Frank Sinatra).

All of the aforementioned five movies take a basically sympathetic view toward their protagonist, making him appear like a sincere, well-intentioned social maverick who was misguided (by his inner demons?) and paid a price (though Flynt and Stern fall more into the "to be continued" category). When all is said and done, none of the major players, like so many near-tragic heroes, "knew what hit him." Larry Levenson, like Bob Crane, left behind loving progeny (one son, in Bob's case; two, in Larry's). Moreover, Larry's sons have faces made for the screen--some of the widest eyes you'll ever see in front of a camera lens. But the real gold mine for filmmakers Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart is a pair of former Plato's Retreat members--a married couple looking like typical retired AARP card-carriers--both of whom can't say enough about Larry, his adventures and misadventures, his alliances good and bad, and his notorious buffet.

Of course, there are snippets of more familiar faces--Mayor Koch, porn star Ron Jeremy, TV host Phil Donahue--but the camera's constant return to the retired couple pretty much says it all: Plato's Retreat was a dump, and poor Larry Levenson was, above all, the captive of his own delusions. The complimentary buffet that he took such great pride in was, in fact, deemed inedible by experienced members, who knew enough to bring their own food if they planned to stay for any length of time.

Despite the unpopular (if unforgettable) buffet, the disintegration of his love life, the loss of all his friends, a brutal mob-like beating that nearly killed him, and serving extensive prison time, Larry kept his chin up and, like the Road Runner, kept coming back, ever optimistic about the future and unshaken in his belief about the rightness of his cause. But Larry was so caught up in his magnificent obsession that he overlooked a minor matter: paying taxes to the IRS. In fact, to hear the interviewees tell it, he didn't go to the trouble of concealing the crime, he left witnesses to his indiscretions all over the place, and finally it scarcely occurred to him to mount a legal defense.

By now you no doubt will have guessed the ending, though it's still probably worth hearing it told. Plato's is closed for good in 1985. Larry winds up driving a cab. Larry dies (in the 1990s) at the age of 62 (I thank the writer who clarified the matter). Apparently there were no more fast lanes or entrepreneurship opportunities to be pursued. The last shot of this 2008 film is of a former acquaintance who, upon being asked his recollections of Larry Levenson, responds: "Larry Levenson! Did he die?"
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on September 3, 2014
I wasn't old enough in the late 70's to know much about clubs like Plato's Retreat...but I enjoyed the documentary. The candid descriptions by the aging patrons were very interesting, and the archival footage was what I was looking to see.

The only thing I didn't like was the background music that the filmmakers have playing under much of the dialog. In most cases it's too loud and a bit distracting.
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on July 10, 2014
I lOVE this documentary!!! I am surprised by all the negative reviews of this movie...most likely these folks expected a porno film. This is NOT a porno film. Yes, it does have very hot footage (though brief) and I honestly wish they had included more of that hot footage, even though much of it is grainy and low light. About everything you wanted to know about Plato's Retreat you can find in this execllent film. It is funny at times and sad at times to see how it all played out over the years. The interviews with former patrons of the club were enlightening to say the least and it was fun to see many of these people relate their adventures to the viewer. I had always heard of Plato's Retreat but never went there and never even visited NYC before the early 1980s. I would have loved to seen Plato's but would I have taken part? It really did not seem very clean there and the former patrons state that more than once. Bottom line is if you have ever wondered about Plato's Retreat buy this film! If you are middle aged like myself (57 as I write this) you will love the music and the clothing - and the lack of clothing!
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on May 15, 2015
I thought this was an awesome documentary on something that is too quickly looked down on in this world. I have been to many lifestyle clubs and resorts and the people are always amazing and welcoming. Most honest, real people I have ever met in my life.
The movie is great at portraying that same thing I think. Even if people still shun this life choice, gay marriage, women's rites, interracial couples, you know, all the narrow minded people out there. Don't watch this movie is you don't like nudity and honesty, there is too much of both here.
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on July 24, 2013
The Sodom and Gomorrah AKA New York in the 70's on full display. This club was one sex-obsessed male's fantasy come true before AIDS and other VD spoiled the party. If you are looking for sensuality this is not the movie for you. But if you are looking for a documentary of how the sexual freedom movement evolved into the mainstream, watch it.
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on August 15, 2013
Very interesting documentary about a swingers club in New York called "PLATO'S RETREAT". Larry the owner, was called the "King of Swing". They should have called him "The King of Schwing". That would have been more appropriate. I would have hated to be one of the people that had to clean up that place every night after it closed though. Can't see how they could have nightly sanitized that place enough to be satisfactory for it's customers, especially the pool and the mattress room? YUCK! Interesting none the less. Worth a look if you like this sort of thing.
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on November 25, 2013
Having suffered through the seventies once already (as a child and teen) I wasn't sure I was up to the task of enduring this. I did manage to enjoy it despite my misgivings. Mostly because the interviewees were so catastrophically stereotypical "swingers" (which is always amusing) and partly because there was a strong dose of Libertarian idealism which appeals to free thinking souls. The interviews were at times comical, at times enlightening and occasionally disturbing.
I found it interesting to see what that world was like in the days before the 4 Letter Acronym ruined everyone's sex lives. The 70's (or at least this aspect of it) was exactly as I think remembered it but was too young to make a judgement. I saw a bunch of trashy, self- serving, children of Bacchus engaged in nihilistic pursuits with a complete lack of consideration for the consequences of their behavior. I also saw a fledgling movement of idealists who soundly believed that your life belongs to you and no one else, and to live it in a manner less than satisfying to you is criminal. They believed in the notion that as long as you are not harming someone else (which of course they did but why nitpick) than you should be free to do as you please.
These seemingly disparate concepts fueled this movement, gave it momentum and then eventually led to it's demise. The underlying themes still thrive (sexual and personal freedom) but with significant, real world modifications. Swinging isn't dead, it's just grown up. They would probably cringe at today limitations, just as the wife and I cringed at their narcissistic excesses.
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