Commentary: HBO's 'Fleiss' is warts-and-all docu

Ex-madam planning Stud Farm for women

"Fleiss" film: Since we know that sex sells and brand names sell, it's not too big a leap of faith to expect a film about a sex brand name to sell.

That should prove to be the case with viewers when HBO airs "Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal" July 21 from 9:00 - 10:10 p.m. as part of its summer Documentary Films Series. Directed and produced by Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato ("Inside Deep Throat," "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"), the film focuses on the former Hollywood madam's efforts to launch a male stocked brothel for female clients in the remote desert town of Crystal, Nevada where prostitution is legal.

Fleiss, a convicted felon for running her infamous Los Angeles call girl ring, is presented warts-and-all by Bailey and Barbato, who chronicle her difficulties in trying to obtain a license to operate a brothel in Nevada. The locals, who own and operate some thriving cathouses catering to men, throw every obstacle they can in Fleiss's path as she tries to get licensed to offer women the new opportunity to rent studs by the hour. Thanks to her L.A. conviction, she's at a major disadvantage dealing with the Nevada authorities who must approve her application. In the end, Fleiss's "Stud Farm" wound up in limbo and she opened a laundromat in Pahrump, Nevada called "Dirty Laundry."

In the film, which played theatrically at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June but unfortunately isn't going into theaters after its HBO presentation, Fleiss acknowledges her addiction problems aren't a thing of the past and speaks of her weakness for the "white trash drug, crystal meth." Just last week, a two-count complaint was filed against Fleiss by the Nye County, Nevada district attorney stemming from a traffic stop made there last February. Fleiss is charged with felony drug use of methamphetamine and possession of the painkiller hydrocodone without a prescription.

"Fleiss," the movie, is definitely not your usual sugarcoated documentary from filmmakers out to paint a glowing portrait of their subject. To their credit, Bailey and Barbato leave it to viewers to form their own opinion of Fleiss, who apparently wasn't the easiest person to work with as they were filming. Indeed, Fleiss doesn't really present herself in a way that would make too many people want to root for her.

I enjoyed an early look at "Fleiss" and was happy to have a recent opportunity to talk to Barbato about the making of the film. "We've done a number of documentaries that are focused on a single subject," he told me. "Tammy Faye to Monica Lewinsky to Heidi. We decide on these subjects because we are attracted to them -- usually for positive reasons. When we started making the Heidi film things unfolded in a very different way. Heidi was struggling at that time in her life and our film reflects her world and her reality just like all of our films do."

The film came about, Barbato explained, because HBO, which financed the production, had been "interested in Heidi and had been talking to Heidi. It was a weird coincidence. Fen and I were very interested in doing a film with Heidi and we had actually put together a proposal and had talked to a number of people while she was talking to people, as well, and while HBO were talking to her. So it was sort of in the air. It was the perfect storm. We have done a lot of work with HBO so when they became seriously interested in it they thought of us. We were thinking of it. And so it all came together quite nicely."

What he and Bailey try to do, Barbato pointed out, is "immerse ourselves in our subject's world. That's the best we can do as documentary filmmakers. And weirdly in some ways it's very subjective filmmaking because what we try and do is see the world through their eyes. We try to take you on a journey and have you experience their life in the most subjective way possible. The unsettling thing about the Heidi Fleiss experience and the Heidi Fleiss film was that she is clearly struggling with addiction. All we can do is kind of make that part of the film.

"Clearly, we admire her in spite of that . I think if we didn't admire her this film wouldn't have gotten finished. Addiction is a terrible disease and people are often blinded from all the other aspects of a personality. It's not a particularly warm and fuzzy film, but at the same time I think at the center of it is someone funny, charming, smart. All of those things are there. We did the best we could at not passing judgment."

The film wasn't intended to be about addiction, he emphasized: "It was meant to be a film about a woman with an extraordinary past who was an extremely successful businesswoman who was in a business that we personally have no moral judgment about and who was starting a new, interesting and unique business. That was the film we set out to make. We made a very different one, but in many ways one that I am hopeful will be more valuable."

What did they set out thinking they were going to do? "We were going to make a film about a woman building a brothel for women," he replied. "It was going to end up with a big song-and-dance number with male studs dancing in the brothel. It was going to be an 'Up With Pimps' sort of film. And we were going to make a film about a woman who had already gone through such extraordinary (circumstances). She'd built this hugely successful business. It all crumbled. She spent time in prison. I mean, Heidi Fleiss has many, many lives. In many ways, she's already had a series of three acts. We did make the film of her second act and I'm sure there will be a film about her third act.

"The third act of our film certainly is not what we expected. And that's another thing about this film that I think is kind of unsettling. We certainly thought there was a third act here and it was going to either be breaking the ground for this brothel or opening it up."

As it turned out, the film's third act, he said, "is not wrapped up with a nice bow on top. The third act leaves you dangling. It's a cliffhanger of a third act, which is very unsettling for most people. It is not the way audiences expect their films to end whether they're narratives or documentaries. But to me it's a testament of the truthfulness of this documentary (and to) the reality that we found. No amount of wrapping would transform our third act. It is what it is. I think people will have issues with it. But in the end for us it really is a testament to the truth at the heart of what this film is about, which is a woman who is at a crossroads in her life who hopefully will move on and have an amazing third act. And I'm sure someone will make a film about it."

Having read about how Fleiss had stopped them from filming her at one point during production, I asked Barbato to elaborate on that. "Well, I think the reality of the situation is from Day One the clock was ticking," he noted. "We kind of sensed (from the beginning) that our time was limited. While we were filming she was incredibly accessible to us. There were no boundaries. We certainly were respectful. We weren't snooping around or anything like that. At the beginning, we just started rolling camera. She didn't like microphones on her. We dealt with what we needed to deal with. But she didn't alter her behavior in any way for the camera. She didn't like the camera nor did she play to the camera."

As they shot footage for their movie, Barbato recalled, "we saw more and more it was inevitable that we would be shut out and eventually we were. Even as we were filming we watched that happen with many people in her life. There's a character in our film, Michael, who used to come in and out of her life (as a kind of assistant). We felt that was important to show that because that was illustrative of many of the relationships we witnessed that aren't featured in the film. Like that happened over and over and over again.

"So we knew that that was going to happen to us, as well. It wasn't going to be (the result of) misplacing a flashlight (which she claimed Michael did), but it was going to be something. It doesn't really matter what it was. It was her and it was having a camera focused on her at a time in her life when frankly she should be focusing on herself and taking care of herself. There were times when maybe that camera had the potential to motivate her to take care of herself. With other people it might have, but she's not that kind of person. She has a rawness, a truthfulness, a directness. All of those things make her an incredibly compelling character to watch and to be with. They also make her difficult to be with and to watch."

The problem is, he continued, "she does not edit herself. In a world where everyone has their own reality show, in a world where we all speak 'television' fluently, Heidi continues to speak her own language."

So much has been done about Fleiss over the years. Why did they want to make a documentary about her? "Prostitution is the world's oldest profession and here is a woman who conquered that profession in the pop cultural capital of the world in her early twenties," he replied. "She is truly iconic. And then she gets busted for pandering, but also really for not paying her taxes fully. But she gets busted and doesn't share the black book. It makes you very curious about the person at the center of this. She's sitting on lots of secrets. She goes to prison. She comes out. She tries these various businesses and then she wants to start a business (the Stud Farm). You couldn't have pitched a more interesting thing to follow the trajectory."

As things turned out, the Stud Farm never comes to fruition during the course of the documentary: "It really becomes a B storyline. It becomes like the 'MacGuffin' of the film (the thing that in Alfred Hitchcock's films the people in the movie are greatly concerned about but which doesn't really matter at all to the audience). But those things were the things that made us curious and interested in Heidi.

"There are people in our culture who the media are obsessed with and who are reported on so much and yet we know so little about them. Those are people who we're curious about. The people who we think we know everything about and yet we know so little. I think those kind of scorned women are really appealing and attractive to us because just to be a strong woman in our culture is an accomplishment."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel