The movie was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. It covers Flynt's life from his impoverished upbringing in Kentucky to his court battle with Reverend Jerry Falwell, and is based in part on the U.S. Supreme Court case Hustler Magazine v. Falwell.
Flynt, a habitual womanizer, becomes particularly smitten with Althea Leasure (Courtney Love), a runaway-turned-stripper who works at one of his dance clubs. With help from Althea and Jimmy, Flynt makes a fortune off his sales of Hustler and other business activities.
With all his success, naturally, comes enemies - as he finds himself a hated figure of conservative, anti-pornography activists. He argues with the activists, one of a number of themes the film explores; in one scene, he argues that murder is illegal, but if you take a picture of it you may get your name in Time Magazine or maybe win a Pulitzer Prize. However, he continues, sex is legal, but if you take a picture of that act, you can go to jail.
Flynt becomes involved in several prominent court cases, and befriends a young, whip-smart lawyer, Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton). Flynt loses a smut peddling court decision in Cincinnati, but escapes jail time when the case is thrown out on a technicality, thereby beginning his long clash with the legal system. (The real Larry Flynt plays the presiding judge in a cameo appearance.) Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover), a Christian activist and sister of President Jimmy Carter, seeks out Flynt and urges him to give his life to Jesus. Flynt seems moved and starts letting his newfound religion influence everything in his life, including Hustler content, much to the chagrin of staffers and Althea alike.
During another trial in Georgia, Flynt and Isaacman are both shot by a man with a rifle while they walk outside a courthouse. (Serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin claims to been the man who shot Flynt and Gene Reeves Jr., the man on whom Isaacman is based in this portion of the film. Franklin claims to have targeted Flynt because Hustler published photos of interracial sex acts, but whether all or any of his story is true is unclear.) Isaacman recovers, but Flynt is paralyzed from the waist down. Wishing he was dead, Flynt renounces God. Because of the pain, he moves to Beverly Hills and spirals down into severe depression and drug use. During this time, Althea begins to dabble in Flynt's pain medications, eventually becoming hooked on painkillers and morphine.
Flynt undergoes surgery to deaden several nerves, and as a result of it, feels rejuvenated. He returns to an active role with the publication. Flynt is soon in court again, however, and is told to provide his source regarding a video tape of a drug deal. During his ever-increasing courtroom antics, Flynt fires Isaacman on the spot, then throws an orange at the judge, all the while refusing to name his source. Flynt is sent to a psychiatric ward, where he sinks into depression again. In Flynt's absence, Althea and Jimmy run Hustler, taking away any Christian influence in its content. Hustler publishes a satirical parody ad where famous evangelical minister Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul) "speaks about his first time," and tells of a sexual encounter with his mother. Falwell sues for libel and inflicting emotional distress. Flynt countersues for copyright infringement (because Falwell copied his ad). Everything ends up in court, attracting the attention of the media. The jury's decision is a mixed one, as Flynt is found guilty of inflicting emotional distress.
By 1983, Althea has contracted HIV, which proceeds to full-blown AIDS. Flynt finds her dead in the bathtub, having drowned (possibly as the result of an overdose, though this is unclear). With his true love gone, Flynt presses Isaacman to appeal the Falwell decision to the Supreme Court of the United States. Isaacman refuses, saying Flynt's courtroom antics humiliate him. Flynt pleads with him, saying that he "wants to be remembered for something meaningful." Isaacman agrees and argues the "emotional distress" decision in front of the Supreme Court, in a case the media nickname "God versus the Devil" (actually Hustler Magazine v. Falwell in 1988). While Flynt is uncharacteristically quiet in the courtroom, Isaacman argues the case and wins, with the court overturning the original verdict in a unanimous decision.
The film culminates with Flynt's victory; after the trial is over, Flynt is shown wistfully watching old tapes of a healthy Althea.
The film received accolades for Forman and Harrelson, as well as for Courtney Love, featured in her first substantial acting role. Love and Harrelson both received Golden Globe nominations for their work, while Harrelson received a nomination for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Miloš Forman also received a nomination, for Best Director. The film won the Golden Bear for best picture at the 1997 Berlin International Film Festival.