Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal

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Airdate: 9-10:10 p.m. Monday, July 21 (HBO).

As is the case with most train wrecks, it's difficult to take your eyes off of Heidi Fleiss in this well-constructed but somewhat pointless HBO documentary about the notorious one-time Hollywood madam's ill-fated attempt to open a legal brothel aimed at a female clientele in the dusty desert burg of Crystal, Nev.
 
The talented producer-director team of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have plowed similar ground many times before, crafting provocatively off-kilter portraits of Tammy Faye Messner and Anna Nicole Smith as well as the acclaimed "Inside Deep Throat." Here, they shine their radar on Fleiss, simultaneously providing her a platform and a noose with which to figuratively hang herself. The result is a vivid portrait of an intelligent woman who -- while serving as her own worst enemy -- has grown increasingly pathetic in her postprison life.
 
What Fleiss does here mostly is interact with birds. Exotic ones. They were bequethed to her by an eccentric next-door neighbor who was a former madam. It's now left to this convicted felon who still battles a crystal meth habit to take care of these animals, and in fact those moments in the film where she's seen nurturing her feathered friends serve to soften Fleiss in a way we've never seen before.
 
But in the main, "Would-Be Madam" is about Fleiss' dysfunctional efforts to open what would be called Heidi's Stud Farm in the middle of nowhere. Of course, the small-town folk who populate Crystal want no part of this famed scofflaw city gal, and the local authorities -- led by a no-nonsense bar owner named Miss Kathy -- do everything they can to provide a roadblock to her getting licensed. You can hardly blame them, really, even if giving everyone a second chance is the American way. The cameras capture a struggle muted by Fleiss' own psychological issues and erratic nature that are fueled at least in part by her taste for street narcotics.
 
We learn as the story winds down that Heidi's dream is still alive, if barely. She's given it up for the moment to open a laundromat in Pahrump, Nev. -- called Dirty Laundry. What's most interesting about the docu is the ability of Bailey and Barbato to inspire their subject to open up about her colorful life, and her candor is refreshing. The lady has no illusions about who or what she is and seems to understand that her demons have a better than average chance of winning.
 
Yet that unflinching self-awareness doesn't in the end make "The Would-Be Madam of Crystal" play as particularly insightful, merely sad.

Production: World of Wonder Prods., McCommera Filmworks, New World Entertainment and HBO Documentary Films. Executive producer: Sheila Nevins. Co-executive producers: Michael McNamara, Barry Katz. Senior producer: Nancy Abraham. Producer-directors: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato. Co-producer: Mona Card. Associate producer: Sham Ibrahim. Directors of photography: David Kempner, Goro Toshima. Editor: Landon Page. Composer: David Benjamin Steinberg.
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