Heidi Fleiss’s face is a paradox: bony and gaunt, anorexically delicate, yet with a glint of sheer will, her girlish prettiness betrayed by a mouth that’s perpetually twisted in distress. She’s a paradox in another way, too — the shadow figure in her own scandal. When her tabloid-ready saga broke in the summer of 1993, Fleiss, the Beverly Hills physician’s daughter who became a madam to the stars, held fascination mostly to the extent that she promised revelations of celebrity hanky-panky. With her hangdog neurotic fragility, she seemed smaller than the scandal, too vulnerable to have wielded the most infamous black book in Hollywood. But what lay behind that face? That’s the question posed by Nick Broomfield in his amazing documentary Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam.
An Englishman who has worked in nonfiction features since the late ’70s, Broomfield has developed his own lyrical brand of guerrilla muckraking. Armed with camera and boom mike, he takes us through every back-alley detour of his investigation, the wrong turns as well as the right ones. It’s a technique ideally suited to a movie about Heidi Fleiss, since the people Broomfield talks to are, for the most part, pathological liars. As we get to know Fleiss and her associates (pimps, call girls, a strong-arm Israeli thug), the drama lies in seeing Broomfield peel away their duplicities, layer by layer, until we’re staring at the cold, dark heart of the exploitation Babylon.
Fleiss, a high school dropout who became fixated on the allure of rich older men, rose to prominence via her association with two people. There’s Madam Alex, for years the reigning flesh peddler in Hollywood (until Fleiss stole her clients), now a bloated old woman whose Yoda eyes can’t conceal the poison of her resentments. And there’s Fleiss’ Hungarian-born Svengali, Ivan Nagy, alleged pimp and FBI informant, whose nauseating leer says that he knows you know he’s lying, and that he’s too powerful to care. Nagy, who is accused repeatedly of beating up female associates, practically leaves a trail of slime on screen.
Was he controlling Heidi? Or did her threat of independence get control of him? At the end, Broomfield finally lands an interview with Fleiss, and for the first time she adds up as a person: smart, morose, engagingly unpretentious, yet with a frightening appetite for self-destruction. The biggest lie in the movie turns out to be the one Heidi Fleiss tells herself: that she’s not addicted to the evil of Ivan Nagy. Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam reveals how, in a world built on the transmutation of sex into cash, the only intimacy that may be possible is the intimacy of abuse.