"Would-be" is the operative term in tabloid documentarians Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's "Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal," as neither the helmers nor their subject arrive at their expected target.

“Would-be” is the operative term in tabloid documentarians Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s “Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal,” as neither the helmers nor their subject arrive at their expected target. For Hollywood’s notorious pandering pro, the goal is to open the first ladies-oriented “stud farm” in the Nevada desert — an outcome that surely would have made for scintillating viewing had she succeeded. But Fleiss’ best-laid plans go bust, leaving the filmmakers scrambling with a repair job that ultimately results in a more intimate, more revealing character study than originally intended. HBO docu airs July 21.

Fleiss fits right into Bailey and Barbato’s gallery of pop icons and divas, but what auds won’t expect going in (particularly if they catch the docu on HBO, where Fleiss’ proposal suggests saucy “Cathouse”-style antics) is a tragic portrait on par with the directors’ celebrated “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Where Bakker hid her true self behind thick layers of mascara, Fleiss admits to having her “tits, lips,” ears and eyelids done in what may be her only sober moment on camera, an after-the-fact sit-down interview with exec producer Sheila Nevins.

No doubt mandated to save the film, that interview serves as the backbone for an otherwise amorphous collection of sad-but-true scenes, the sort of inside-look schadenfreude auds have come to expect from reality TV. It’s Fleiss vs. the world, as the former madam, diminished by three years in prison (or “lesbian hell,” as she calls it), takes on the opponents of her would-be bordello.

Villains emerge: George Flint runs the Nevada Brothel Owners’ Assn. and fears Fleiss will bring unwanted attention to their profession (soon proven true). Local bar-owner Miss Kathy swears women won’t pay for sex, objecting that Fleiss’ operation will attract unwanted gay trade (though her real issue seems to be that Fleiss somehow bought 60 acres of Crystal land for $42,000, when everyone knows it’s worth millions).

Doubling as a portrait of addiction, docu shows Fleiss on the road to self-destruction, making more enemies than allies in nearby Pahrump, Nev. (she even fires her “assistant,” formerly homeless fellow junkie Michael Smallridge). Legal complications eventually undermine her plans, forcing Fleiss’ attention in an unexpected direction.

She opportunistically befriends Marianne Erikson, the bed-ridden former madam next door, dipping into Marianne’s little black book to grease the wheels for her own ambitions. But she never expected to fall for her neighbor’s secondary passion, collecting rare birds. It’s hard to fathom any HBO viewer tuning in to see Fleiss bonding with birds, and yet, in the pic’s most poignant scene, Fleiss displays a surprising maternal streak as she mourns the loss of a beloved macaw.

But it is Nevins’ interview that brings everything together, presenting a very different face of Fleiss to the world. In it, she appears professionally dressed and made up, her features flattered by the soft lighting (in sharp contrast to the strung-out look of the verite footage). Eight days sober, Fleiss delivers fully polished yet outrageous pearls of her personal philosophy, a mixture of colorful self-promotion and survivor’s moxie. But she also lets down her guard, as when she reveals that her favorite book is Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”

This, surely, is the Fleiss that attracted Bailey and Barbato to the project, and though the material they uncover isn’t nearly as salacious as Nick Broomfeld’s “Hollywood Madam” docu, the “Grey Gardens”-like lunacy of Fleiss’ self-imposed exile will engender sympathy from some and repeat viewings among the more camp-inclined.

Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal

Production

An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a World of Wonder production. Produced by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins. Co-producer, Mona Card. Directed by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato.

Crew

Camera (color), David Kempner, Goro Toshima; editor, Langdon F. Page; music, David Benjamin Steinberg. Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (competing), June 26, 2008. Running time: 69 MIN.

With

Heidi Fleiss, Michael Smallridge, Marianne Erikson, David Emmer, George Flint, Jeanna Howard, Miss Kathy.

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