Aug 12, 2012

The Queen Of Versailles

You walk in to this surprisingly affecting documentary by Lauren Greenfield with the preconception that you are going to hate David and Jackie Siegel, the protagonists of this sad, ridiculous American saga. Greenfield gained access to the billionaire couple as they were building the biggest house in America, an enormous mega McMansion "inspired" by the palace of Versailles, without the taste.
The house, set in the swamp that is Orlando, Florida, was to be ninety thousand square feet and had 10 kitchens, a bowling alley and a grand ballroom, among other necessities. It was built in such a scale, as Mr. Siegel put it, simply because he could do it. That is the can-do American spirit right there, to spend, borrow and buy apocalyptically and with great gusto.
Mr Siegel became a billionaire by developing the largest timeshare corporation in the world. As his son explains, with a timeshare you are selling an apartment 52 times over. People pay a mortgage to use the place one week a year. One apartment - 52 mortgages = genius. A timeshare is, like many of the perks of living in the land of overconsumption, something nobody really needs, but Siegel, who seems to be a very shrewd businessman, made billions with it. Heartbreaking are the scenes where suckers are led to the slaughter by smooth talking salespeople showing off tackily appointed timeshare penthouses. Timeshares are the real estate equivalent of Vegas slot machines: for aspiring losers only. Siegel and his son not only know this, but they actually say it. However, they spin it as giving regular people the opportunity to "feel rich", to partake of the delusional fantasy that the American dream has become. Nowhere in the film do the Siegels ever acknowledge that they may have been the victims of their own predatory practices. Nor do they seem aware of the connection between their Republican ideology and the karma they ended up paying. What makes the film interesting, beyond a sarcastic voyage into the lifestyles of the obscenely rich is that the economic crisis suddenly put David Siegel in the same spot as many of his customers; unable to pay off debts, and for the exact same reasons: irrationally cheap loans.
What starts as an exploration of almost pathological conspicuous consumption, ends being a poignant fable about our financial crisis and the rampant criminality of the banking system, which doesn't show mercy even for well connected billionaires like the Siegels. For as Mr. Siegel borrowed cheaply and spent like a maniac, the economy collapsed and so did his business, which was predicated on people making their monthly mortgage payments.
Greenfield, who followed the Siegel family for two years, was handed a once in a lifetime dramatic turn on a platter and she wisely took it. We all have heard about regular people who got foreclosed and fired and ended up sleeping in their cars and eating at soup kitchens, but the irony, and the implications of watching unrepentant billionaires lose their shirts is what makes this film more than just a sideshow into the eccentricities of the American rich. It is an indictment of a capitalist system gone completely off the rails. It still provides good, superior fun, laughing at the foibles of a rich man and his younger trophy wife (this phrase is actually used by the couple's eldest daughter in connection to her own mom). We can laugh at their garish oil portraits and their terrible taste (they all look like they dress at Kmart). The Astors, these people are not. The only thing they have in common with Versailles is the French in nouveau riche. But what makes the film winning and even touching is that the Siegels are very, as they say, "relatable". They are not snotty, evil, claustrophobic snobs. They are plain and down to earth and surprisingly candid and open as subjects. Why on earth did they think it a good idea to let cameras into their private life is anybody's guess. Obviously, they liked to show off their wealth. Maybe Siegel thought a peek into the construction of his own personal Valhalla would be good business P.R. Greenfield may have set out to shoot a satyrical document about the distorsion of the American dream, but she was taken by their openness, and eventually, their vulnerability. She rolled with the punches, and the result is a satisfyingly complex portrait of a family, and of a new class of ridiculously wealthy Americans, whose obscene fortunes ended up being flattened by the financial crisis.
Jackie Siegel happens to be very personable, albeit completely distorted by wealth. In an almost unbelievable scene, she goes to Hertz and expects a driver to be included in the rental. But she doesn't seem petty. She is an ebullient, compulsive consumer, refreshingly un-self aware. As in, I paraphrase: "I wanted to have just one child, but when I saw that I could have nannies, I had eight! They are such a bundle of joy!" (the nannies, I presume). In fact, her gargantuan shopping habits before the debacle (and even during) could singlehandedly save the American economy, or at least the ravaged economy of Orlando. A former Miss America, a bright kid from Binghamton, N.Y. she studied engineering so she could get a job at IBM, then the local source of jobs in town. She quickly saw the misery of a Dilbert-like existence and bolted for a modeling career. Eventually, as Miss America, she met David Siegel, thirty years her senior. Jackie is a great deflater of our preconceptions. She doesn't act like the gold-digger one expects. Just because she was Miss America, doesn't mean she's stupid. But she does like to play dumb. She seems totally devoted to her husband, much more than he is to her. Still, she spends money like other people gorge on food; to satisfy an inexhaustible emotional hunger. Nothing is ever enough, but she shops so guilelessly that you almost feel sorry for her. To me, having that amount of money and choosing to live in Orlando, Florida is incomprehensible. But the Siegels don't have pretensions. They don't care to sit on the board of the Met. They just care to spend and to have and to show it off. Their hunger for things hints to emotional deprivation in both of them. People who feel safe and loved probably don't need to surround themselves with so much crap. The Siegels are world-class luxury hoarders.
For good contrast, Greenfield spends some time with their small platoon of Filipino nannies, who can't see their own struggling kids and are actually the ones who wear the pants around the house, because Jackie is incapable of any kind of discipline.  She has a good eye for irony and hubris, and the film is rich with scenes of great paradox, like a mansion covered in dog poop because nobody there cares to walk the dogs. A scene of Christmas shopping by Jackie, just as her husband is struggling to save his business, is jawdropping. She arrives home with 4 giant Walmart carts of gifts as the maids try to bring them into the house where already in the garage there are mountains of forgotten unused toys.
The movie is an entertaining, disturbing portrait of our rapacious capitalism. It's a scary vision of upended fortunes. Check out Jackie's chauffeur's story. It will give you goose bumps. It's "there but for the grace of God go I". But it is also an intimate portrait of a lopsided marriage, the threesome between a husband, his wife, and lots of money.
Right before the movie came out, Siegel was very displeased with the results and sued Greenfield for defamation. It's ironic that he can't realize that what makes him angriest about the finished film --  according to him, it makes him looks like a loser and tarnishes his business reputation -- is actually what ennobles him.
There have been several documentaries and movies about the grotesque surrealism and unfairness of our recent financial crisis, but this one makes it feel personal. By a happy accident; the financial crisis, it became about much more than a glimpse into bizarre fortune, it's about the collapse of American fortunes of poor and rich alike at the hands of the biggest, most brazen, unrepentant criminals this country has ever known: the financial industry.

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