It was the early 1990s when a shrewd businesswoman by the name of Heidi Fleiss first made national headlines.
Fleiss, then 27, was arrested for running a large-scale prostitution ring in Los Angeles that catered to hundreds of rich and famous clients. The "Hollywood Madam," as she was dubbed, refused to reveal the names in her little black book - actor Charlie Sheen was one of the few clients publicly identified - and Fleiss eventually was convicted on charges ranging from tax evasion to pandering to money laundering.
For years, not much more was heard about the onetime "madam to the stars." After being released from what she calls the "lesbian hell" of prison in 1999, Fleiss declared bankruptcy and tried to make a living by turning out a few sex books and DVDs and operating a clothing shop in Los Angeles.
But in 2006 - prompted by a suggestion from Roseanne Barr, of all people - Fleiss had a flash of inspiration: why not head to Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some areas, and use her experience and smarts to open a legitimate brothel?
But Fleiss' place would be a cathouse with a twist: it would be very classy, it would be staffed by a stable of male studs, and it would cater exclusively to women. She even had a catchy name in mind: Heidi's Stud Farm.
A new HBO documentary that premieres at 10 p.m. Monday follows Fleiss' effort to launch her beefcake bordello in the tiny desert town of Crystal, Nev., about 60 miles west of Las Vegas.
Much of Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal is made up of scenes filmed over a 10-month period when Fleiss, now 42, was trying to get her new enterprise off the ground. She comes off as both savvy and sad, likeable at times and quite bitter at other times. She's also frequently all-but-incoherent, which we eventually find out is because she's addicted to crystal meth.
Fortunately, the show's disparate and disjointed scenes are tied together by a candid sit-down interview in which a well-scrubbed Fleiss is articulate, insightful, and good-humored - mostly because she'd been drug-free for a week when the interview was taped. She talks of her privileged childhood in Beverly Hills as the daughter of a pediatrician and a teacher, and her early realization that she had a talent for organization. As a young teenager, she enlisted her girlfriends to work for her in a babysitting service.
She also displays an inflated opinion of her accomplishments - "I took the oldest profession on Earth, and did it better than anyone on Earth" - and makes it clear that she still considers herself a celebrity.
As the former madam goes about trying to set up her Stud Farm, she's apprehensive at first about operating outside the familiar surroundings of a big city. But before long she's won over by the anything-goes attitude that prevails in small Nevada communities such as Crystal and Pahrump.
"I love it," she says. "It's the wild, wild west. Where else do you have prostitution, gambling, [and] political corruption? And people walk around and they carry guns!" (Apparently, all of those are good things in Heidi's world.)
As word gets around about Fleiss' plans, some of the locals seem less than thrilled, even though there are already half a dozen brothels operating in Nye County. A representative of the Nevada Brothel Owners Association - yep, these guys have their own trade group, just like hardware store owners - explains that cathouses are best operated under the radar of the public's consciousness, and Fleiss attracts way too much publicity.
But not everyone is lined up against Heidi. She's befriended by an elderly neighbor, Marianne Erikson, who happens to be a former madam herself, and during frequent visits to the bedridden woman's trailer home, Fleiss forms a surprisingly deep attachment to Marianne's large collection of exotic birds. That's fortunate, because when the old woman suddenly dies, Fleiss takes over her flock and admits it's the first time in her life that she's ever felt something close to love for any living thing.
As time goes on, more roadblocks get in the way of Fleiss' grandiose plans, but surrounded by the comforting presence of dozens of birds, she doesn't seem to mind all that much. Unfortunately, this is when the documentary runs out of steam - except for those viewers who might find it interesting to watch the former madam shuffling around her tiny house, talking to her colorful and noisy feathered friends.
As the bizarre 70-minute documentary comes to an end, plans for the Stud Farm are still up in the air, but Fleiss does manage to launch a new business in Pahrump, and it actually wins the support of most of the locals.
It's a small Laundromat, and she names it Dirty Laundry.