SKINNY, green-eyed Heidi Fleiss, the 27-year-old reputed Hollywood madam charged by police with running a deluxe call-girl service from her US$1.6 million (HK$12.40 million) mansion in Benedict Canyon, showed up for her arraignment with her eyes hidden behind dark celebrity sunglasses. A press conference had to be cancelled because of the media stampede that nearly crushed her.The media has fed feverishly on Hollywood's spiciest scandal for years. The Tinseltown rumour mill has been overloaded with speculation about the names of the moguls and stars who supposedly paid US$1,500 a night to sample Fleiss's girls.But more disturbing than any of the names in Fleiss's not-so-little black book is how the boom in upmarket prostitution in cities such as Los Angeles is symptomatic of the US's impoverished emotional life. Angelenos, in particular, seem increasingly incapable of having normal personal relationships. When the smoke has cleared over Hollywood, and Fleiss has signed her mini-series deals, it will be back to normal for LA's overpaid 'industry' denizens. For many this will mean back to their passionless emotional lives. LA is frequently invoked as a metaphor for the future, a zoom lens into the 21st century; where LA leads, the US - and the rest of the world - follows. As the modern city (and LA is the modern city) becomes more impersonal and insular, life becomes more indicative of the extent to which traditional sources of emotional fulfilment - love, marriage, friendship - have simply become lifestyle attachments to be taken up and disposed of like any other convenience item in the fast-food culture of the US. Sex is reduced to the level of a visit to a personal trainer; marriages often seem reduced to the level of business partnerships; and romance seems to have become a near-extinct part of the fast-track US way of life. The view that the US has become an emotional wasteland has been most fiercely advocated by the conservative critic Allan Bloom, who died in October last year. His last book, Love and Friendship, published in the US in July, is a blistering indictment of contemporary culture. In it, Bloom argues that the US is increasingly a society in which love and friendship are withering, with the mystery of Eros replaced by the mechanics of sex. Bloom's previous book, The Closing of the American Mind, was a bestseller that inveighed against universities for being a conspiracy between dull, left-wing academics and even duller, lazy students.In the new book, Bloom contends that modern love has been reduced to a power struggle between the sexes: the combined influences of radical feminism, Freud, the Kinsey report and egalitarianism have turned personal relationships into a contractual deal. All forms of relationship, from citizenship to marriage, are marked in the same toneless colours on the map of the human heart. Scientific research and sex education have made love and sex boring.In Bloom's introductory essay, The Fall of Eros, he argues that the de-eroticisation of the West is inexorably linked to the modern city, which is becoming the negation of nature. People living in a megalopolis such as LA are in danger of becoming 'social solitaries', with the dogma of politically correct thought making them increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to anything or anybody. The pseudo-scientific word 'relationship', writes Bloom, is a term devoid of meaning.'Isolation, a sense of lack of profound contact with other human beings, seems to be the disease of our time,' Bloom writes. While it would be absurd, Bloom notes, to say that Romeo and Juliet simply had a relationship, people now casually talk of the great love of their lives in such a way. There has been much bemoaning the lack of family values, he says, but little attempt torevive the ritual of romance that once led to a strong family. Bloom believed that the US's backward emotional life was rooted in the impoverished language of modern love - mindless pop songs, video sex lessons and 'real life' romantic television soap operas.The key into the fallen kingdom of Eros, he argues, lies in the great works of literature. More than 100 pages of Bloom's book are devoted to Rousseau. 'The miracle of sex, according to Rousseau, is that although it is purely material, it becomes in civilised man utterly dependent on imagination.'Bloom's views have rankled the more progressive critics in the US. The New York Times Book Review criticised Bloom's 590-page 'Olympian disgust with modern mores' for being morally snobbish. Reviewer Katha Pollitt was forced to concede, however, that Bloom's timing was perfect. With the beast of communism now safely out of the way, she wrote, conservative thinkers are turning on sex - with such associated issues as AIDS, single parents, homosexuality and abortion - as the next battlefield for moral crisis. There has been much interest in Bloom's book, even though it looks a little odd rubbing spines in the self-help section with such cheap bestsellers as Making Love Happen - The Essential Guide for Every Woman Who Longs for Love and Romance and is Ready to Make It Happen, by Rebecca Sydnor, San Francisco's latest love guru. The vastly expanded market for such books, and the huge box-office success of 'date movies', including Sleepless in Seattle and Indecent Proposal, are symptomatic of the nation's need forso-called 'love-growth'. Set in the love-starved '90s, where relationships are contracts to be negotiated, it seems appropriate that Nora Ephron's Sleepless should be about the love a young woman has for a man she has never met, hearing his voice on a lonely heart phone-in radio show; and that the plot of Indecent Proposal should revolve around a husband renting out his wife for a night to a billionaire for US$1 million. Romantic fiction sales have sharply increased in five years - 45 per cent of paperback sales are now romance novels (99 per cent of which are bought by women). For weeks the top seller in The New York Times list has been Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County, a sententious love story about a Midwestern farmer's wife who has a five-day affair with a travelling photographer. Interestingly, the book has been selling to both men and women.This upmarket Mills & Boon novella has done for Iowa what A Year in Provence did for the South of France. Both are useful barometers of national wish-fulfilment. A film, directed by Sydney Pollack, is predictably in the works. An accompanying CD, The Ballads of Madison County, is also available, with some slushy love songs performed by the author, a former professor of management at the University of Northern Iowa. The frightening extent to which personal relationships in LA are becoming increasingly dysfunctional has been made only too crudely apparent by the allegations that pop singer Michael Jackson sexually abused the 13-year-old son of a prominent Beverly Hills dentist. Jackson has denied the allegations, but his preference for friendships with children and animals has caused speculation about his emotional development. A hundred years ago, the novelist George Gissing described the 1880s and 1890s as the decades of 'sexual anarchy', with the laws governing human identity, friendships and sexual behaviour breaking down. A host of British sexual scandals, including the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895, resulted in a series of fierce calls from the moral pulpit to reaffirm family values in order to keep sexual decadence at bay. In the 1990s, the polemics of critics such as Bloom are a backlash against the sexual permissiveness and liberalism of the US in the '60s and '70s.There is nothing very novel about sexual decadence in LA. Column after column has been devoted to the infamous Fatty Arbuckle manslaughter case of 1921, to Errol Flynn's alleged sex-and-swim romps with underage girls and the legendary afternoon 'auditions' of mogul Darryl Zanuck, co-founder of 20th Century Fox. But in its desperation to link college dropout Fleiss with a few fading celebrities and the odd ageing rock star, the media has missed the crucial way in which this summer's brouhaha is so unlike past scandals. Fleiss was trying to revolutionise the prostitution game. Her haute couture service aimed to make hooking the radical chic of '90s LA; to make being a part-time deluxe hooker as socially acceptable for post-teen actress/models as waiting on tables. Waitresses in LA take home US$50-$70 an evening; a girl on Fleiss's books would earn $1,000 a night. As Fleiss says: 'LA is in a recession. I put a lot of people through college, maybe. A lot of people got to go on with their careers. A lot of girls got to be who they wanted to be.' Fleiss's salon of party girls were designer fashion accessories - a status symbol that massaged the rampaging and insecure Hollywood ego. Today's Hollywood stars and executives don't want to hustle in bars, can't be bothered with conventional courtship or dating. It all takes too long. Besides, their monster egos are not programmed to cope with the possibility of rejection. As Jackie Collins puts it: 'These men actually want to spend a lot of money on a beautiful woman. They get a vicarious thrill out of paying for what they think is the best. If they can buy a girl, they think they control her.'Such thinking may be understandable for a fat and balding 55-year-old mogul. But the media has swerved past the disturbing point that Fleiss's booming business catered primarily for young Hollywood - good-looking, athletic types whom you would not have thought needed to pay for sex. As Bill Stadiem, who co-wrote former Hollywood super-madam Madam Alex's forthcoming memoirs, Madam 90210, says: 'Heidi's business was geared towards young brat-pack actors, young rock 'n' roll people, young producers, executives and agents - she was an emblem of the Hollywood scene.'Stadiem is a 45-year-old Oxford and Harvard-educated former Wall Street lawyer. While researching Tinseltown's executive prostitution rings, he also wrote the screenplay for A Business Affair, inspired by the bizarre love triangle between Cyril Connolly, George Weidenfeld and Barbara Skelton in '50s London. Life in today's LA, where he has lived for the past 10 years, couldn't be more different. 'It seems very sad,' Stadiem says, 'that these successful young people, who should have some romance in their lives, are going to prostitutes at 21.'It used to be thought that it was mainly the old who were lonely. However, a Psychology Today survey on friendship in the US has revealed that, of 40,000 people questioned, 73 per cent of those aged between 18 and 34 said they felt lonely, compared to only 37 per cent of those over 54. Many young Americans find communication difficult. I once picked up a post-teen glossy magazine in a petrol station which had an advice column for men entitled 'How to date successfully'. One tip was: 'Try to plan your date to minimise the chance of conversation.'LA is a town where instant gratification is prized above all other impulses. Being able to buy your indulgences is regarded as a 'high-end consumer privilege': the right of any Hollywood Master of the Universe, that breed that believes it can rule the world with a US$1 million salary and an international telephone line. 'Whatever business you are in, LA is the world capital of conspicuous consumption,' Stadiem says. 'There is nothing nostalgic about LA. This is not a town where you are going to look back on your life and say: 'We will always have Santa Monica.' This is avery hard town. A very impatient town. It's an ideal town for prostitution, because there are no deep relationships. There is no courtship. There is no romance.'To understand the twisted emotional world of LA you need to tune into the West Coast mind-set. Cut to shortly before 8.30 on an October morning last year, as 38-year-old super-agent Bill Block drives up to the Four Seasons Hotel. This wasn't any LA power-breakfast. In a ruthless move - the sort of friendship-burning manoeuvre that Griffin Mill would have been proud of in The Player - Mr Block had just defected from InterTalent, the new upmarket talent agency he and several ambitious partners had co-founded in 1988. Without him, they were . . . well, they were screwed. Still, what was that old Hollywood saying? If an executive pays a whore for sex, at least that makes one honest party in the transaction.As the newly-appointed head of International Creative Management (ICM) West Coast operations, Mr Block was about to give his first staff pep-talk. 'There are very few places to put your faith these days,' he declared to the assembly of 150 ICM agents. 'Not in marriage. Not in the media. Not even in banks. But you can put your faith in your work and your co-workers . . .' The ballroom burst into loud applause.He is one of the best-liked players in town. He is seen as the consummate Hollywood executive - an agent's agent. Like a number of successful LA executives, he is unmarried. Apart from his job, he has few other interests - the gym, his gun collection. He is known as a 24-7: he works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Mr Block once boasted: 'I have no interior life.' Vanity Fair magazine said there was 'something pure and clean' about such a goal.For so many Americans, it seems, love is now experienced as a second-hand emotion. Instead of the real thing, they get surrogate emotional fulfilment from books, films and television shows. What is so alarming about the US's soaring demand for personal-growth and self-help books, in particular, is how the psychobabble reduces romance and love to the level of a Reader's Digest carpentry handbook. They reveal the disturbing extent to which a large number of Americans think human relations - sorry, behavioural sciences - can be taught, like learning to assemble a take-away Big Mac.It is not difficult to see why personal relationships have reached such a low ebb in a city like Los Angeles. For a start, nobody reads very much. The phrase 'leisure' has practically fallen out of the dictionary in LA. Of course, agents, executives and businessmen will play tennis and go mountain-biking in the Santa Monica mountains, but distinctions between work and play have now become blurred. For most Angelenos, there is no real difference between work and play. Same world. Same players. Long hours.Secondly, the culture and architecture of LA are designed to minimise human contact. Unlike London or New York, there are no pedestrians. As nobody walks anywhere, you can drive for miles without seeing a soul. You can spend hours on the telephone, and never talk to someone face-to-face.Then, of course, there is the haunting spectre of AIDS. Hollywood, where one in four of those working in the film community are estimated to be homosexual, has three times the national average of AIDS deaths. But the disease, if anything, has only helped to fuel the 'love-growth' industry, with people earnestly seeking romance and a monogamous relationship. That such a huge disproportion of Angelenos remain unattached and emotionally unfulfilled speaks for itself.LA is a city of transients. One in five Americans will have moved house a year from now. Many end up in California, sooner or later. Nobody really knows anything about anybody. In a town where mendacity is viewed as an art form, an increasing number of women are now hiring private detectives to trail prospective boyfriends/husbands before they commit themselves to a relationship. Women over 40 are estimated to have only a one in 10 chance of finding a partner. Many LA women are now paying up to US$20,000 to join exclusive upmarket introduction agencies - with potential dates viewed on video in the safety and seclusion of their home. The University of California Los Angeles offers a series of evening courses on living as a single - the workshop classes are designed to be a meeting place for the lonely. There is little or no social stigma attached to placing a personal advertisement in a paper like LA Weekly. The market has expanded to radio stations, whose Sunday evening airtime is swamped by recorded 20-second messages from 18-year-old girls looking for a love life.This month marks the end of my second year in LA. I am 27. I share my house with an alsatian. The height of my own romantic success has been to appear on a television dating show called Love Connection. The show, which so far boasts 27 marriages, is so popular in the US that it is aired twice every evening. I was chosen by a 25-year-old stockbroker called Andrea. As I was led on to the stage like a circus clown, the TV audience pressed the electronic buttons implanted in their seats to rate our 'contestant compatability'. We scored 34 per cent. Not enough for a prize; or even another date.