The People vs. Heidi Fleiss

Ostensibly, Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal documents ex-Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss on her meandering quest to build and obtain a license for a male brothel -- one with male prostitutes and female janes -- in Nevada. Refreshingly, the film abstains from making any moral judgments about Fleiss -- in fact, the film shies away from making any judgments or arguments at all, about anything. Depending on whom Fleiss is speaking to, she's portrayed both as a feminist hero raging against the oppressively male status quo and a narcissist who grapples with her own irrelevance and superficiality. And sometimes both, like when she maps out the differences between herself and Alexander the Great: "I conquered the world when I was in his 20s, he in his 30s; he's dead, I'm alive. [Building a brothel is] a lot like building a city because I'm selling men, not women."

Fleiss spent three years in a federal penitentiary (or, in Fleiss' words, "lesbian hell") during the late 1990s for money laundering, tax evasion and pandering. Entertainingly, she seems to have little comprehension of why she was in prison or what was so wrong about what got her there. "So if a women sleeps with all these different guys for free, that's fine, but if she takes money for it, that's illegal?" she asks incredulously. She also recalls how she consoled herself during her imprisonment by telling herself that this was "payback for every mean thing [she's] done to someone." But the sins for which Fleiss believes she suffers apparently do not include money laundering, tax evasion, and pandering.

In any event, Fleiss has emerged from prison with renewed entrepreneurial zest; she's picked up and headed out west (namely, Nye County, Nevada) to open what she hopes will become the first legal brothel that caters to female clientele. She's christened the project Stud Farm, and hired a creepy incompetent named Michael and a troupe of perfectly Euro-trashy architects who've designed the Stud Farm with the "intimate layers" of an oyster in mind.

Standing between Fleiss and her crustacean-shaped sex den are the residents of Nye County, whom the film characterizes with Prokofievian jingles that immediately follow their appearance on screen: a jangy, down-country tune for George Flint, the director of the Nevada Brothel Owners Association (he doesn't like the attention that Fleiss is attracting towards the Association); crescendoing violins for Miss Kathy, the owner of the Short Ranch Saloon who's miffed that Fleiss secured a piece of property that she had had her eye on.

But the oddest of Fleiss' new gang of Nevada folk is Marianne, a bed-ridden ex-madam (she was "kept" by Colonel Sanders, he of the chicken) who has literally surrounded herself with exotic birds, whose cages line her deathbed. The film lingers on Fleiss and Marianne for strangely lengthy amounts of time as they discuss and feed the birds -- the birds (or Marianne) don't fit into the narrative in any real way, nor are they an effective metaphor for commenting on the nature of exoticism or imprisonment.

Much more of the film feels unsure of its footing; its primary focus seems to be documenting Fleiss' maneuverings to open up the brothel, but lots of the narrative is composed of bizarre vignettes about Fleiss' relationship with Marianne, a disastrous run-in with a TV crew -- the importance or significance of which is never explained -- and Fleiss' personal demons. The film could have served as a platform for an intellectual referendum on contemporary notions about sexuality; prostitution calls to mind morally ambiguous questions about a woman's right to her own body -- and her (and others') rights to profit from it. Characters flirt with ideas about sex and how it relates to feminism, but they're either incapable of articulating them (with Fleiss, that's almost certainly the case), or the camera doesn't trust them enough to let them try.