Jon Zobenica's article on Playboy in the current Atlantic Monthly is getting a lot of attention. And it is a very entertaining examination of the differences between girlie magazines then (Playboy, encouraging its readers to think of themselves as urbane pipe-smokin' sophisticates) and now (Maxim, for the pathetic lonely college boy in all of us).
As to whether the original Playboy was really better than what came after, I don't know. I don't buy the idea that either kind of magazine is less sexist -- sexism is hard-wired into the concept of the girlie magazine, and we're kidding ourselves if we pretend that there's a big difference. If anything, the way women are presented in Maxim -- as vaguely threatening and possibly possessing cooties -- makes them a wee bit more powerful than the "women are there to serve" aesthetic of Playboy. The lad mags carry a message that women are scary, but maybe there's some power in being scary, who knows.
I do think it was good that Hugh Hefner actually tried to include some quality articles and reporting; obviously nobody really reads Playboy for the articles, but if you're going to spend money on a magazine, it should at least have something you can enjoy after you're finished looking at the pictures. At least Playboy fostered the image that people who liked to look at naked pictures could be cool and intellectual; Maxim openly declares that its purchasers are people who can't read and don't have the nerve to buy actual pornography.
Ultimately, though, these magazines are geared to the aspirations of the audience, and aspirations have changed. In 1953, the dream was to prove that being a single man was not a sign of a pathetic, unfulfilled life (why aren't you settling down and contributing to the baby boom, you slacker?), but a sign of sophistication and swingin' coolness. Playboy attempted to convince its readers that they were really grown-ups. Now the dream is to exist in a state of perpetual adolescence, so you've got magazines that feed the dream of being a college frat-boy forever.