Dogged British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer) nearly accomplishes the impossible with his new film Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam by convincingly portraying his infamous subject as a victim A not an innocent one by any means, but a victim nonetheless A in a battle between a pair of sickeningly swinish rival pimps. Broomfield makes Fleiss look like a slightly sullied girl-next-door when compared to her flesh-trading associates, either or both of whose likenesses should appear in the dictionary next to the term "scuzball."
One of those opprobrious procurers -- sixtysomething convicted bookmaker, erstwhile movie director, alleged sadist, blackmailer, FBI informant, and consummate shady character Ivan Nagy (pronounced "Nahj") A may have turned in Fleiss to strike back at her for terminating (temporarily) their bizarre and abusive love-hate relationship. Fleiss, who by her own admission has a fetish for much older men, left wealthy Bernie Cornfield for Nagy because the former refused to be loyal to her. Ironically, according to Nagy's archrival, the late Madam Alex (once Hollywood's preeminent queen of pay-dates), "loyal" lover Nagy introduced Fleiss to the joys of prostitution.
Until her death from heart failure in July 1995, Madam Alex ran her escort service from her bed. Hollywood Madam shows Madam Alex accepting -- and lovingly counting -- $2500 in cash from filmmaker Broomfield to comment on her professional relationships with Fleiss and Nagy. She accuses Fleiss of conspiring with Nagy to steal clients while Heidi was still turning tricks in Madam Alex's employ. Watching two panderers such as Nagy and Madam Alex slander each other is a decadently, disgustingly, deliciously slimy treat. Madam Alex accuses Nagy of coercion, white slavery, murder, sexual deviance, and -- shudder -- impotence; he calls her a drug addict and a bitter, vindictive, manipulative old bag. "If there is such a thing as pure evil," Nagy declares, "it's Madam Alex." You get the feeling they're both right.
Of course the wily Broomfield is no stranger to the art of manipulation himself, and he expertly maneuvers his stellar cast of repugnant scammers into assassinating their own characters. And what a loathsome lot they are, right down to former Los Angeles Police Department chief Daryl Gates (looking for all the world like a lowlife snitch while meeting Broomfield in a nondescript hotel room and accepting a $1500 payoff to go on the record regarding his department's bust of Fleiss). Broomfield doesn't miss many opportunities to put his smarmy subjects on the spot. But after ambushing L.A.'s one-time top cop with information that Gates's own brother Steve, a former LAPD captain, was a Fleiss frequent flyer, the filmmaker should have nailed the reeling ex-chief with questions about the LAPD's need for a high-profile conviction such as Fleiss's -- especially after it became an international laughingstock in both the O.J. Simpson and Menendez Brothers trials. Broomfield could use a little killer instinct.
Gates shares screen time with several of Heidi's girls, including Fleiss's pathetic former best friend and ex-employee Victoria Sellers (daughter of Britt Ekland and the late Peter Sellers). Even porno star Ron Jeremy makes a brief appearance. And we hear -- but never see -- a mysterious retired Israeli secret service agent (and alleged Nagy enforcer) known only as Cookie, who, when queried by the hysterically deadpan Broomfield about some bulletholes in the ceiling of Nagy's living room, threatens to "put in your [Broomfield's] ass one."
The lowlights are just too plentiful to list here. Broomfield's camera records every vulgar detail in explicit, graphic glory A from Sellers's description of a sick trick to Nagy's naughty home movies. (Nagy describes one video's content as innocent "fun and games. [The video] gives you a sense of nice emotional interaction between two people." If that's the case, then Fleiss has an odd way of bestowing affection; the tape depicts a nude Heidi commanding Nagy to turn off the camera. When he doesn't comply, she cajoles, "Ivan, what's that green stuff coming out of your dick?") Broomfield's scathing documentary exposes a nest of vipers whose greed and venom know no limits. When, near the end of the film, Fleiss finally sits down to tell her side of the story, she seems charming by comparison A almost angelic, especially clad head-to-toe in white garments from her Heidi Wear clothing line. (What, you expected a shrewd businesswoman such as Fleiss to pass up wanton self-promotion?)
It becomes difficult to reconcile this shy, likable woman with initial press portraits of Fleiss as a jaded, coke-sniffing Hollywood madam, smirking defiantly and flipping the bird at TV newsmen. You find yourself coming around to Broomfield's view of Heidi-as-fall-girl, an easy target in a high-stakes game of whore wars. Could this candid, toothsome sweetheart possibly be the wicked witch of Westwood who threatened to go public with her not-so-little black book, the prospect of which struck terror in the hearts of untold numbers of studio executives and movie stars? No way, you think. But then the interviewer digs one layer too deeply, and Fleiss's sunny mood abruptly clouds over. She curtly cuts off the interview. You start to wonder if she's been playing the filmmaker like a john, telling him what he wants to hear, selling a fantasy Heidi. And you remember Nagy warning Broomfield: "You believe her. You think she likes you. You think you're hot shit. You're a rube. She thinks you're a fucking idiot. You're not in the club."
You realize he's probably right. Broomfield isn't in the club. Neither are you. But that doesn't prevent Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam from offering a rare, fascinating peek at what goes on behind the clubhouse door.
Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam.
Directed by Nick Broomfield; with Heidi Fleiss, Ivan Nagy, Madam Alex, Daryl Gates, and Nick Broomfield.