Aug. 22, 2012 - Issue #879: Is The Party Over?
The Queen of Versailles
Directed by Lauren Greenfield
The Versailles of the title refers to what was to be the largest home in America, 90 000 square feet collecting 30 bathrooms, a bowling alley, sushi bar and a colourful, central ceiling window that apparently had a quarter-million dollar price tag alone.
The Queen of the title is Jackie Siegel, a woman with a computer engineering degree, a former Miss Florida title to her name and a marriage to the ultra-rich David, a timeshare magnate 30 years her senior who proudly claims to have personally gotten George W Bush elected. (He refuses to elaborate because, grin plastered across his face, he says his methods might not have been legal.) As presented here, he doesn't seem like a bad guy, just a very, very (very) rich one who's content to wield the power and influence that he does. The movie doesn't even bring up the fact that, near its beginnings, he'd just lost a sexual harassment lawsuit from a former employee. But I digress.Off the top of The Queen of Versailles, in 2008, the Siegels' dream palace is 50 millon dollars into its construction, business is booming—"We save lives ... we save marriages," goes a pre-day meeting mantra for Siegel's flagship staff—and in a fortuitious moment of happened-to-be-there filmmaking, director Lauren Greenfield started filming just before their guilded life began to unspool. The recession hit; people stop buying time shares; Siegel was forced to make thousands of layoffs as debt and uncertainty engulfs his upper-middle one-percent world.
Part of the movie's potency is in turning your early feelings of schadenfreude for this immensely wealthy family—they have to sell their private jet? The horror!—into something darker, stranger and more harrowing: a realization of how an American Dream once realized can be just as easily be snatched away. Once that uninhibited freedom of wealth is gone, cracks begin to form in the family core: Jackie seems unable to live within her newly limited means, still trying to splurge, giving herself $2000 caviar as a Christmas gift, then seeming surprised she can't get her kids to care about the shrinking world around them; when a pet lizard dies, one of them shrugs it off with "I didn't even know we had a lizard." Meanwhile, David—who grows increasingly disheveled in the interviews as time goes on—proves unable to be satisfied by what he still has. "Nothing makes me happy anymore." he laments at one point. "I can't separate business and personal."
Greenfield's access is pretty complete; the riches-to-rags direction of the movie makes its principle characters fascinating to watch, but Greenfield also talks to neighbours and nannies, films a post-recession Christmas morning, captures the house falling into disarray after a mass-firing of nannies, and lets the events speak for themselves by having them unfold before her lens. "We need to live within our means," David says near the film's end, a demand on a room full of family that still can't really, truly fathom it, like they can't believe it's not all coming back some day. By then, it's even hard to blame them: when you've been living in a dream for so long, coming into reality isn't easy.
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