April 20, 2011

American Swing (2008)

AS A CHILD OF THE ‘70S, I sometimes have trouble relating to the fact that while I was enjoying the most innocent years of my life, many adults were engaging in some of the most hedonistic and debauched behavior of modern times. Casual and open cocaine use, key parties, and “swinging” by married couples were apparently taking place across America.

One avid swinger, a former deli owner named Larry Levenson, believed so much in catering to the swinger scene and bringing it to the mainstream that he opened Plato’s Retreat, a sex club in New York City during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s where couples could indulge in spouse-swapping, anonymous sex, and group orgies (not to mention the free buffet).

It’s the ascension, heyday, and eventual decline of Plato’s Retreat that’s the basis for the documentary American Swing.

Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart direct this documentary about the legendary sex club Plato’s Retreat, which catered to adventurous heterosexual couples in the 1970s and beyond. Featuring frank interviews with former members and graphic footage of the club's activities, the film explores how a once-thriving center of free love imploded amid drugs, tangled relationships, and the rise of AIDS.


Kaufman and Hart certainly have done their research in order to create an informative and accurate-as-possible account of Plato’s Retreat – American Swing features dozens of interviews with former employees and management, friends and relatives of Levenson, regulars of the club, journalists who covered the scene, celebrities who visited the club, and archive footage of Levenson himself from appearances on Donahue and local New York City public access TV shows.

In addition to the sheer volume of interviews, Kaufman and Hart also provide unprecedented imagery of what went on inside the club – with dozens of photos and many video clips, both showing in very graphic detail the sexual escapades that took place (Swing is unrated, but would have easily been NC-17).

It’s oddly intriguing to listen to people who now qualify for AARP talk about Plato’s Retreat and the anonymous sex, spouse-swapping, and orgies that went on there – especially in the club’s notorious “mat room,” where only the most hardcore attendees would gather.

For the second half of American Swing, Kaufman and Hart put aside the titillating footage and focus on the people impacted by the club’s decline and eventual closing due to IRS woes and the looming threat of AIDS. (Watching Levenson and his cronies argue with callers on public access TV in 1985 as to what does and doesn’t cause AIDS is both laughable and sad, considering how little was known about the disease at the time.)

After three decades of being able to mostly only read and hear about what went on at Plato’s Retreat, American Swing blows the proverbial doors off the place – giving unprecedented access to the people who were there, showing what went on via uncompromising footage, and telling the story of yet another overconfident pioneer who believed his own hype, believed he was above the law, and fell victim to both.


Is it suitable for your kids?
Ah, no. No, no, no. The frank talk and visual evidence in American Swing regarding the sexual activity that dominated Plato’s Retreat is strictly for grown-up folk – and even some of them might be taken aback by what’s discussed and shown. There are copious amounts of nudity and several scenes of multi-partner or group sex, and recollections by former patrons about what they did or witnessed is sometimes as explicit as what’s shown.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she likes documentaries, American Swing is very well-made and more thorough than the average doc. But she’ll need to have an open mind to the subject matter.

See? Even casual, anonymous sex with group partners has its rules.

American Swing
* Directors: Mathew Kaufman, Jon Hart
* Stars: Bryce Britton, William Davidson, Dan Dorfman, Donna Ferrato, Jamie Gillis, Al Goldstein, Dian Hanson, Buck Henry, Ron Jeremy
* MPAA Rating: NR

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