Where have all the swingers gone?

Whatever happened to the swingin’ ’70s? The makers of a new documentary are glad you asked.

American Swing is about the infamous club Plato’s Retreat. From the late ’70s to the early ’80s, the Retreat flourished in New York City, catering to the under-catered-to swingers community. Run by one Larry Levenson, Plato’s became synonymous with New York’s flourishing underbelly, and helped make the city what it is, or at least was.


At least, that’s one of the arguments put forth in American Swing. Directors Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart make a pretty good case, too, even as their doc remains fairly objective on the subject of swinging itself. Interviews with the people who were there, from writer Buck Henry and former mayor Ed Koch to the managers and participants, offer a snapshot of the pinnacle of late 20th century hedonism that couldn’t help but be temporary. In the end, it was taxes, drugs, and AIDS that doomed Plato’s Retreat.

But perhaps the real story belongs to Levenson himself. As the chief potentate (in more ways than one, apparently) of his little fiefdom of flesh, Levenson was a king—removed from his palace, he was a pauper. Without an identity —sex was, literally, his life—he ended up driving a cab, and died of a heart attack at the age of 60, more or less friendless and alone.

Told with archival footage from seemingly inside the club (including lots of flesh) and period talk shows with Levenson, as well as new interviews (Al Goldstein of Screw Magazine has to be one of the most entertaining, well-spoken interview subjects ever), American Swing is a riveting through-the-keyhole look at American life circa 1980, when it still seemed like the free love revolution would never catch up to us.


(American Swing is showing in Vancouver with DOXA, the Documentary Film Festival May 22-31. Check http://www.doxafestival.ca for showtimes.)

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