THE PIMP, of late, has waned in our collective cultural psyche.

Remember the '90s? The early aughts? Pimps were all over the place back then—baroquely adorning rap lyrics and showing up, unfailingly, in cheap purple velour at your Halloween party.

The depictions were cartoonish and jovial, always glossing over the brutality and despicable psychological warfare involved in actual pimping in favor of some perceived cool. We are better for having largely cast aside the preoccupation.

The new documentary Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp is out to bring it back. Slickly produced and jam-packed with celebrity interviews, the film recounts the life of Robert Beck, who navigated poverty, prison, and drug addiction to become a popular author and perhaps the best-known pimp in American history.

It's a passable narrative, satisfyingly distinct from the rags-to-riches tales that saturate the culture (Beck never became distinctly wealthy). But, as much as the film's producer (Ice-T) and others interviewed for the film would like him to be, Iceberg Slim is not a sympathetic protagonist.

Beck grew up in Chicago, where he was "street poisoned" by the pimps and prostitutes who frequented his mother's beauty shop. He took up drugs and petty crime, and during a prison stint learned the finer points of pimping, which he pursued upon release. When referring to his exploits as a "procurer," the film often makes smirking reference to the women he tricked into prostitution, with only scant nods to the ugly reality of those acts.

Beck's redemption—and fame—came as Iceberg Slim, his pen name in novels and poetry based on his life experience. They are popular, brutal books, unwilling to unduly polish the facts of Slim's tarnished existence. The filmmakers might have followed his example.