High in the Brush
I really do know the sex business better than anyone. I’m not saying that to be arrogant.
—Heidi Fleiss, 6 November 2007
“The day after I was arrested, I was sitting by my pool. My house overlooked the entire city of Beverly Hills and I remember thinking to myself, ‘How did I fuck up the best job on earth?’ And I felt this big.” Heidi Fleiss’ wistful recollection suggests that she doesn’t regret her choice to be a madam or even that she was arrested. Instead, she rues her own mistakes. However she did it, she ruined a splendid career, one at which she excelled and one she doesn’t see as inherently wrong, mendacious, or immoral.
She does know it was illegal, of course. And her efforts to rectify that aspect of her chosen profession serve as point of departure for Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal. It is not the documentary you might expect. As Fleiss explains herself, or more accurately, explains the many contexts that shape her experience, the 41-year-old former Hollywood Madam is by turns pensive, evasive, and entertaining. She sees herself primarily as an interloper in men’s arenas, from hustling to world-conquering. When she mentions Alexander the Great during the film’s “formal interview,” her questioner wonders if she means to compare herself to the legendary boy king. “No,” Fleiss comes back with an answer she’s used before: “I conquered the world when I was in my 20s, he did it in his 30s and he’s dead. I’m alive.”
She is that. She is also, as Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary begins, more or less recovered from her prison term, which ended in 1999 (“I wound up in solitary confinement for 60 days; after 29 days, everyone goes a little bit crazy”), cleared of Heidi Wear and Tom Sizemore, and embarking on a new venture, the “Stud Farm.” She plans to erect the only brothel in the States meant to service heterosexual women, eco-friendly and located in Pahrump, Nevada, just outside Vegas, where such activity is legal. The filmmakers follow her work on the frequently delayed project for some 10 months, including interviews with local citizens who are wary of the trouble this enterprise may make for them, and more than a little skeptical of their new neighbor. Saloon owner Miss Kathy believes Fleiss has acquired the land in some kind of scam (she’s paid $42,000 for 60 acres) and George Flint, director of the Nevada Brothel Owners Association, cautions against the publicity that comes with Fleiss by definition (“We’re selling a product that an awful lot of people are never comfortable commercializing,” he says, and for someone who oversteps unspoken rules of keeping a low profile, “We use the term ‘high in the brush’”).
Fleiss understands she faces obstacles. She admits the drive from Vegas to Pahrump sounds daunting, but only in a certain context: “For men, I think it’s a buzz kill, they have to drive an hour to get laid, but I think for women, it’s different,” she says, suggesting the beauty of the landscape will help get clients in the mood. She’s not happy about the town’s name (“They should have named it Little Feather or Tomahawk, any other Indian name but Pahrump”), but calls her place “Crystal… a beautiful name.” And she’s pleased with the general sense of the place. It’s the wild, wild west,” she smiles, “People walk around, they carry guns.”
The film begins with footage of Fleiss working on the site with her “helper” Michael Smallridge suggests a DIY sort of project. They collect rocks to decorate the brothel’s bathrooms (during one nighttime excursion, sans flashlight, she berates Michael mercilessly and nuttily, the tirade set against a black screen), and they oversee the installation of smoky, mood-setting windows), it’s not long before she’s sidetracked. Not only is she facing standard legal machinations (a lengthy application must be submitted to the sheriff, and approved by a Board of County Commissioners), but she’s also contending with Miss Kathy, who is collecting signatures to contest her ownership of the land (a brief face-to-face in the saloon suggests Miss Kathy’s primary concern is that women will not be the Stud Farm’s most likely customers, but instead, the place will draw gay men).
Waiting to move forward, Fleiss finds distractions that become her unexpected focus. Her closest neighbor, Marianne Erikson, is a retired madam who lives in a house full of exotic birds. As previously revealed in Nick Broomfield’s Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Fleiss has a certain regard for elderly madams (“I’m very submissive to bedridden former madams,” she confesses here). But Fleiss, long since perceiving herself as the most brilliant and successful of madams, draws from Marianne not tips on the business but an abiding appreciation for birds.
Her developing interest becomes the unexpected focus of The Would-Be Madam of Crystal. As she befriends particular birds (especially a scarlet macaw named Dalton), Fleiss takes on a whole new demeanor, an engaging if perplexing combination of genuine affection and compassion. She’s alternately upfront and evasive about her personal quandaries. She frankly lists all the “work” she’s had done (“I have fake lips, I have fake tits, and I had my ears done, and my eyelids,” she says; asked what she looked like “before,” she smiles, “A monster”) and declares herself sober for eight days, admitting this could be the start of the rest of her life, again, or the latest brief stint before another relapse (her drug of choice, she says, is “that white trash drug crystal methane”).
As Fleiss’ relationships with the birds evolves, her interest in the Stud Farm appears to wane. She builds an aviary for her new charges, lavishes her attention on them, and wonders at herself. “I’ve never been attached to a person, to cars, to jewelry, to a house, to anything,” she marvels, and yet she’s devoted to the birds. To make a living meantime, she’s opened Dirty Laundry, a laundromat in Pahrump. Whether she ever gets back to the brothel, the film suggests, Fleiss maintains the capacity to resist expectations and remains “would-be.”