Hollywood's Celebrity Panderer as a Bird Lady? Heid Fleiss
Jan 13, 2013
Review by ChrisJarmick
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Some surprising twists and turns in disturbing, compelling documentary.
Cons:Dated. Fleiss mostly comes across as an arrogant-know-it-all with a huge chip-on her shoulder.
The Bottom Line: More interesting as it develops, this Heidi Fleiss documentary changes mid-course and became darker and more disturbing. 3 1/2 stars.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Recommend this product?
Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal was a 69 minute HBO documentary that played a few film festivals in 2008 before its pay-cable showings. Tabloid documentarians Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (best known for excellent The Eyes of Tammy Faye) had intended to follow the famous Madam to Hollywood Stars; Heidi Fleiss as she opened up a brothel to be called Crystal in the Nevada desert that would provide gigolos (male prostitutes) to lady customers. But Fleiss’ attempts to open up her stud farm run up against all kinds of local resistance and then some legal problems. Fleiss was actually paid for her participation —presumably to sit down for some revealing interviews that are used as book-ends in the documentary.
What we get is a fairly tragic portrait of an arrogant, drug addicted, know-it-all with a huge chip on her shoulder more reminiscent of Grey Gardens (the tragic portrait of the Beale sisters from the Maislies). Fleiss isn’t seen doing drugs (meth-presumably) but it’s fairly obvious she’s under the influence in several scenes. In fact one of the few times she was probably sober was when she sat down for the bookend interviews to answer several pretty hard-hitting questions with surprising frankness. She tells us in these interviews she’s been sober for a few weeks and that she’s had plastic surgery in the past—obviously on her lips, but also to her ears, eyelids and breasts.
The film plays for its first 30 minutes like a fairly worthless car-wreck of out-take scenes from a failed reality TV series. (I didn’t realize that in recent years, that since this was made Fleiss has been on Celebrity Rehab and a couple of other reality TV series.) I watched the film recently (2013) on an HBO re-broadcast.
Fleiss became famous of course when she was arrested for managing a lucrative call-girl operation that specialized in providing sexual services for high profile men including many celebrities like Charlie Sheen. Fleiss refused to name names and though she made some sort of deal with the authorities she spent three years in prison (which she calls: “lesbian hell”). She has a huge chip on her shoulder and seemed to somewhat enjoy playing to the cameras through the years espousing her strange philosophical beliefs and complaining that she ran a good business that should be legal—even admitting that she became an out of control drug addict while running her business. She takes great pride in being a very organized business woman and we are briefly told the story (again) of how she developed her head for business when she was a teenager organizing a group of babysitters very efficiently.
I believe most of the time-period we see in the film is 2006 (the sit down interview portion was done in 2008). Fleiss was at the right place at the right time and bought 60 acres of Nevada desert land in Pahrump, Nevada for what seems a bargain price of $42,000. There’s a large house on the property that’s right next door to a house owned by Marianne Erikson a former 60-something Madame who has health problems, is on oxygen and keeps dozens of exotic birds.
Fleiss drives out from Hollywood in an old beater truck that wants to break-down but she keeps running, to make the property and house her main residence. She brings with her a formerly homeless man (Michael Smallridge) she recently hired as her personal assistant. He seems pretty devoted to her every whim and takes some pretty harsh verbal abuse form her. She has plans to renovate and build a showpiece brothel in the desert. She has hired architects to design the brothel that has come up with some very ambitious plans. You can’t help wanting her to be taken down a few pegs for her arrogant attitude.
There are problems with her not completely worked out plan. George Flint who runs the Nevada Brothel Owners Association doesn’t want Fleiss to open up another brothel because he fears she will bring unwanted attention to their profession (and it turns out, he’s correct about that). There is also local bar-owner Miss Kathy who believes that women won’t drive 90 minutes out of Las Vegas to pay to have sex with men. She thinks it will attract a gay-trade and she doesn’t think Fleiss can manage men with the same efficiency and ability she managed women. She also has questions about how Fleiss bought 60 acres of land that might be valued at several million or more for just 42,000 dollars. (“I would have bought the land if I knew I could get it for $42,000.).
As problems occur, Fleiss who has be-friended her next-door neighbor Erikson and has even grown attached to several of her exotic birds, asks the possibly still politically well-connected Madame for some help. Perhaps she can make a few calls, grease a few wheels and make some of the problems go away.
Despite how truly unlikable and full of herself Fleiss has been, you will be surprised and possibly moved as you watch Fleiss develop a deeply caring almost maternal bond with the exotic birds. There’s a bit of a surprising development and twist to things that I won’t divulge.
The bookended 2008 interview conducted by HBO producer Sheila Nevins shows a professionally dressed, and eight day sober Fleiss who is in full self-promotion mode and sharing some of her personal philosophies. Nevin breaks through her not so deep exterior shell and gets her to answer some tough questions and then she admits her favorite book is Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” which leads to an emotional scene.
Baily and Barbato and HBO were probably hoping for a sexy, salacious Real SEX type documentary and instead wound up with something else entirely. It’s a semi-tragic portrait of Fleiss as she struggles with her addiction, her legal problems and her self-imposed exile in the Nevada desert. Some will be attracted to the almost camp-ready elements here.
Fleiss is at first a very unlikable subject to spend time with, but we begin to develop some compassion and sympathy for her as this short documentary progresses. She’s a mess of a human being and a lot of the mess is her own fault but…..
It’s cinema verite (you are there) style means it was already a bit dated and anti-climactic when it was released on cable in 2008—but I didn’t keep up with Fleiss and didn’t know this story or what she’s been up to the last few years.
Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal develops into much more than a pay-cable version of a salacious reality TV program to become a sort of Grey Gardens documentary. It’s compelling, disturbing, revealing and has a few surprising developments. This doesn’t make it necessary or important for anyone to watch—but I was mostly glad I did.
Copyright© Christopher J. Jarmick 2012
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