"SOMETHING very unfortunate happened last night," said Heidi Fleiss, on the phone from her home in Pahrump, Nev.

One of her birds, a hyacinth macaw, blue with yellow eyes (she has 20 birds currently, most of them rescued), had flown away and possibly been eaten by a coyote. Fleiss said she'd heard screams in the desert night. "It's not like I'm hoarding birds or collecting them," she said. "My dream would naturally be to just set them free . . . but their chances of survival if I set them loose are less than 7%."

It was hard to hear her over her squawking housemates. The bird motif is heavy in "Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal," an HBO documentary on the former Hollywood madam that premieres tonight at the L.A. Film Festival and will air this summer on the pay-cable channel starting July 21.

The film, from veteran documentarians Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato ("Party Monster," "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"), chronicles the 42-year-old Fleiss' well-publicized attempts in 2006 to open a brothel for women (i.e. "a stud farm") in Crystal, Nev., where prostitution is legal.

The documentary (the second on Fleiss, after Nick Broomfield's 1995 "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam") has its cheeky details, like Fleiss reflecting on the baby-sitting business she started as a kid in Hollywood, which, by implication, expanded into something else. She comes off as alternately kooky, unpredictable, sweet, sad and savvy, a pop culture figure having decamped to the Nevada prairie, where the terrain can look like Mars and Fleiss is seen collecting rocks.

Two sides of Fleiss

As a character, she has two looks -- the verité Heidi in the desert, scrawny, downsized and dealing with drug addiction (crystal meth, also Valium and Vicodin, she said), and the Heidi later interviewed for the film at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, groomed and eight days sober, reflecting on her life and infamy.

"They captured the essence of Heidi on the loose. The interview got Heidi in control," said Sheila Nevins, president of HBO documentaries and family films, who conducted the one-on-one interviews with Fleiss because, by then, she was no longer speaking to the filmmakers because of a dispute about what they could and couldn't shoot. "And in a sense, that's the nature of the film."

Even in an era of too many celebrity bad girls, Fleiss remains one of a kind. To review the rap sheet: In 1994, Fleiss was convicted of pandering in connection with her high-end prostitution business; she went to prison in 1997 for money laundering and tax evasion (concurrent with the pandering conviction). There was also that problematic relationship with actor Tom Sizemore.

On the phone, when asked about her drug use, Fleiss said: "I am sober right now."

She spoke of expanding her laundromat business, called Dirty Laundry, and of how Pahrump is growing. It has a Wal-Mart, and maybe a Home Depot opening soon, and maybe even Michael Jackson as a resident (it has been rumored).

Fleiss herself said she recently bought 10 acres and has big plans for her new residence.

"I'm gonna build my Hearst Castle," she said.

Hers is, in a way, a very L.A. story. She grew up in Los Feliz, the daughter of a Jewish doctor, and mingled -- legally and otherwise -- with the rich and powerful until it all came tumbling down. And so she went, finally, where an entrepreneur like her would go -- to Nevada, in part to get away from the traffic. Pahrump is 63 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and it's where you can ply a legit niche in the money-for-sex business. But it's rough-hewn, and Fleiss wanted to bring architectural panache: Her ingenious reversal on a Nevada cathouse was to open an Ian Schrager hotel of a brothel, where women, for a change, would presumably pick from a stable of gigolos. Call it a doghouse.

The film chronicles the roadblocks she meets; it has to do with the entrenched folk who dole out brothel licenses, Fleiss' prior felony conviction and her association with a brothel owner, Joe Richards, charged with wire fraud.

"But then, interestingly, the brothel itself becomes this kind of MacGuffin," Bailey said. "And the film is about many, many other things."

New admirers

Most especially, and metaphorically, there is the gaggle of colorful birds she inherits when her Pahrump neighbor, a former madam herself, dies.

"I think she really does fall in love with these birds," Bailey said. "For all her knowledge about who she is and what she is, and for all her spin about herself, she gets really taken by surprise by this, this thing called love."

In the film, the birds come to seem like a surrogate for human relationships; though they gnaw at her clothing, the birds don't judge her. Fleiss hasn't seen "The Would-Be Madam of Crystal," nor will she attend the premiere tonight. She liked the payday from HBO for her participation, which she said was $250,000, but the network declined to discuss the figure.

"I'm all about the money," Fleiss said of on-camera gigs, and she talked about her aborted participation in the latest installment of the VH1 reality series "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew," a decision she agonized over because it involved getting sober before cameras and leaving her birds. When she arrived in L.A. for a staged intervention, Fleiss said, she was told that the other rehabbing celebs didn't want another member in the group.

Fleiss surmises that they balked at her because of the price tag. VH1, in response, issued a statement from show executive producer John Irwin, saying, in part: "Heidi was originally supposed to be on the show, but she didn't show up until six days into filming so she was told she could no longer be a part of the cast."

The making of the movie too apparently ended badly, with Fleiss shutting down the filmmakers because, she said, they would keep the cameras rolling when she'd asked them to stop filming. Barbato, for his part, was measured in maintaining his admiration for his subject and the impediments she presented.

"It was impossible to create a safe environment with this project, no matter what we tried to do, and it was just a matter of time from Day One that we were going to be shut out. And I think it had less to do with us and more to do with what our subject was going through at the time that we had the cameras rolling," Barbato said.

"Heidi is sort of a genius, loose cannon. She has an addiction problem," HBO's Nevins said, admitting she felt motherly toward her.

"I think it's a very tragic story, really. She's got a lot going for her. Plus she knows a lot of secrets, and she keeps them. Through all her druggedness, she has this strong moral fiber. Which I find intriguing."

paul.brownfield@latimes.com