The notorious Manhattan swingers club Plato’s Retreat, which managed to stay in business (with a few hiccups) from 1977 to 1985, was called “the poor man’s Playboy Mansion,” a place where free-thinking heterosexual couples could get off for a $25 door charge. But to hear it described in American Swing, a workmanlike account of the club’s rise and fall, Plato’s Retreat was more like a Petri dish: a grand experiment in sexual chemistry, and a festering pool of bacteria. There was “the mattress room,” a perpetual mass orgy stretched out over 20-plus soiled mattresses; a whirlpool large enough to accommodate the fluids of 30 people at a time; and, in perhaps the greatest affront to hygiene, a free buffet. The authorities found plenty of reasons to shut Plato’s down over the years—tax evasion (the owner, hilariously, tried to pass it off as a non-profit), prostitution, unsafe sexual practices—but surely the proximity of the mattress room to hot trays of chicken wings and shrimp must have left health inspectors scrambling for bribes.
Plato’s proprietor was Larry Levenson, the self-described “king of swing,” who imagined the club as a place where couples could practice infidelity without deception and shed all the jealousy and emotional complications that are bound up with sexual pleasure. His ideals may have been naïve and more than a little self-serving, but they were by all accounts genuine, and for a time, Plato’s existed as an unpretentious, egalitarian sexual haven for ordinary folks. (Studio 54 it wasn’t.) It was only when Levenson was sent away for tax evasion that Plato’s began its steep, inevitable decline, hastened later by the onset of AIDS and other STD scares in the ’80s.
Drawing on vintage clips and talking-head interviews with Levenson’s associates, regular clientele, and recognizable faces like Annie Sprinkle, Ron Jeremy, and a droll Buck Henry, directors Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart assemble a creditable account of Plato’s ambitions and how human nature, social changes, and Levenson’s mistakes brought it down. American Swing could use the flair of similar portraits of disco-era debauchery like Boogie Nights or Inside Deep Throat, but it’s even-handed in capturing the operation’s ambition and hubris. Just don’t bring an appetite.