Film Reveals That There's More To Heidi Fleiss Than a Shady Past

"Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal" premieres tonight on HBO.

July 21, 2008— -- There's a point in HBO's revelatory documentary "Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal" (tonight, 9 ET/PT) when the former Beverly Hills madam meets a sickly, aging trailer-dweller who could be the Heidi of the not-too-distant future.

Fleiss, living in a scruffy Nevada ranch home, befriends her neighbor, an ex-brothel operator who lives alone except for a coterie of exotic birds. After the woman dies, Fleiss finds similar solace and bonds with the birds now in her care.

Fleiss' notoriety as a high-end prostitution ring operator who catered to Hollywood actors and power brokers is well-documented, along with her conviction in 1997 for tax evasion, her prison time and her descent into bankruptcy and drug use. Fleiss' forays continue to be tabloid fodder.

Yet filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato capture Fleiss, now 42, in a fresh light, much as they did with overexposed celebrities Tammy Faye Bakker in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and Monica Lewinsky ("Monica in Black and White"). "She's very smart — even her addiction doesn't dim her intellectual powers," Bailey says. "She has a direct, focused business take, even at her messiest."

Fleiss, who says she has nothing to hide, tells USA TODAY she agreed to do "Crystal" for the money. "They paid me $250,000," she says. (HBO and the filmmakers declined to confirm.)

Over 10 months, Bailey and Barbato track Fleiss as she struggles with methamphetamine addiction and attempts to develop Heidi's Stud Farm, a brothel of male prostitutes who cater to women. Fleiss spent $42,000 on 60 acres in Nevada to build the Stud Farm. But trouble with partners, financing and opposition from locals thwart her plans.

Except for an on-camera interview in which she's smartly dressed and says she has been sober for eight days, there are few diva moments. Instead, "Crystal" tracks what the filmmakers call Fleiss' Jekyll and Hyde persona, showing a disheveled, sickly Fleiss arguing with area residents, interacting with an equally unsteady helper and frequenting the desert — sometimes in pitch darkness — to nurture her rock-collecting hobby.

The former millionaire is a natural entrepreneur who showed her business acumen as a teen by forming a lucrative babysitting service. She still runs Dirty Laundry, a Pahrump, Nev., coin laundry she hopes to expand to other sites.

Filming ended before an arrest in February on suspicion of illegal possession of prescription drugs and driving under the influence.

Fleiss says she's now undergoing treatment — "I'm really taking it seriously. I'm 42 and it's time for a change" — and still plans to open Stud Farm. "There've been distractions and it will take time, but I'll get it done."

And she says she has no plans to watch the documentary. "I just don't watch things on myself," she says. "Obviously, I have a lot of issues. I live my life in chaos. … I'm a nut job."