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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review: The Queen of Versailles (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Lauren Greenfield

Timing is everything and the bad timing of David and Jackie Siegel, who decided to build a replica of Versailles in their home state of Florida only to watch the real estate bubble burst before it could be completed, turned out to be the good timing of filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, who originally set out to document the building of what would have been the largest single family dwelling in the United States and ended up with a far richer and more relevant story about the ethos that fed the economic collapse. That is the story of The Queen of Versailles, which may just as well have been titled "Hubris: The Movie." It would be easy for a film like this to become a celebration of schadenfreude, but instead it is a surprisingly balanced and complex portrait of a long, hard fall from the heights of excess. It's pushing it to say that you end up feeling bad for the Siegels - but you do sometimes come close.

The Queen of Versailles begins with the Siegels on top of the world. David Siegel is a billionaire whose empire is built on time shares and his wife, Jackie, is a former beauty queen, a few decades his junior, with whom he has seven children. Having decided that the house they currently reside in is too small for their brood (which includes a bunch of dogs who are, apparently, not house trained), they design a new home which eventually ends up spanning 90,000 square feet in order to store everything they feel they need in a house, and is created in the image of the palace of Versailles. At the beginning of the film, David rhetorically asks why he would build such a place for himself and then states simply that it's because he can. Little did he know that he actually couldn't.

With Versailles only about half completed, the US economy tanks and takes the time share business, Westgate Resorts, with it. The Siegels, who have billions of dollars worth of assets, do not, it appears, have any actual cash. Their wealth is built on the smoke and mirrors of mortgages and loans and soon the banks are calling in their debts. The partially constructed Versailles is put on the market for a ridiculous $75 million, much of the Siegel's staff gets laid off, not to mention thousands of Westgate employees, and everything that can be sold is getting sold. While Jackie is coming to the realization that her kids might actually have to go to college in order to get jobs to support themselves, David is admitting that they might not actually be able to go to college because they haven't put any money aside for it. Think about that for a minute, that someone could have billions of dollars and not save a single cent of it. The level of greed that must have informed the decisions that resulted in that much money being pissed away is absolutely staggering.

As things continue to spiral downwards, you do start to feel kind of bad for the Siegels. Actually, let me amend that, because any time I started to feel even remotely sympathetic to David Siegel I recalled his comments at the beginning of the film that he feels that he's personally responsible for the 2000 election of George W. Bush (gleefully declining to elaborate because his methods "may not have been legal") and that in the run up to this year's election he threatened to fire his employees if Obama was re-elected, and I think: you know what? Fuck that guy. He's not a victim of the economy. He's a victim of his own ridiculous excess, of an apparent inability to think a day ahead, of being so blinded by dreams of "the best" that it never occurs to him to have a backup plan in case of "the worst." He's such a perfect metaphor for why the bubble burst that it's almost hard to believe that he's an actual person who exists in reality.

Jackie, on the other hand, is a little easier to feel empathy for. Though she may seem, at first, to be little more than an empty headed trophy wife, she's no dummy. She has a degree in computer engineering and, despite years living lavishly, she's obviously not without a work ethic. She's almost Scarlett O'Hararian in her willingness to pick herself up by her bootstraps and do what needs to be done, trying to put on a brave face while her marriage begins to crumble beneath the weight of financial collapse. Her efforts aren't always necessarily sound, but amidst all that excess, she comes off as a warm and genuine person. She's as guilty as her husband for creating a huge mess by living so far above their actual means (not to mention far above any human being's actual needs), but she's a lot easier to feel sorry for.

While the Siegels are the focus of the film, Greenfield is able to subtly extend the scope of the story, making it less the tale of one rich couple's fall from grace, and more a portrait of the American dream grown too big to be sustainable. There are interviews with the Siegel's driver, who was himself once worth $3 million and now struggles to keep his family afloat, and with the Siegel's Filipino nanny, who laments having forfeited the opportunity to raise her own children in order to work in the US with the idea that she would one day be able to return to her country having made enough money to buy her family a house. Like everyone else, she hasn't managed to put any money aside for the future. The Siegels are not an isolated case, they're just a particularly prominent example of a wider social problem. As frightening as it may be, The Queen of Versailles may be the clearest reflection of our times currently in existence.

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