8:40 am Jul. 19, 2012
With The Queen of Versailles, opening Friday, Sundance Directing Award–winner Lauren Greenfield stumbled upon what one might call a documentary readymade.
It's a spectacle so compelling, with characters so gaudy and outlandish and a story whose unexpected twists feel so right in their amplification of a nation’s collective delusion, that seemingly all the director has to do is step out of the way after pressing the record button.
Greenfield chose as documentary subjects David and Jackie Siegel, he the billionaire CEO of the flourishing Orlando-based timeshare empire Westgate Resorts, she his wife and would-be queen of "Versailles," their unfinished 90,000-square-foot mega-mansion (with 13 bedrooms, 23 bathrooms, 2 movie theaters, a health spa, a bowling alley, and so on) that was designed, in part, to become the largest private residence in America.
Even given such details, Greenfield had no way of knowing that these firmly entrenched one-percenters would, over the course of filming, lose their bearings and a significant chunk of their finances in the 2008 economic collapse. But the acclaimed photographer-turned-filmmaker acted on an educated hunch, then planted her feet as the ironies mounted. The result is a queasily entertaining dark comedy that zips us from envy to schadenfreude to sympathy to terror, and yokes itself to a bitter conclusion: For better and for worse, the Siegels are us.
The film introduces its variation on the all-American family at the height of the 2007 housing bubble, as construction commences on the Siegels' monument to conspicuous consumption. David, a thrice-married septuagenarian and grocer’s son, considers himself a proud testament to the virtues of extreme wealth, and boasts of having personally gotten George W. Bush elected president, though “it may not necessarily have been legal.” (He declines to offer the details.) Though he relishes his ability to lend a philanthropic hand to the Miss America pageant, and to spend indiscriminately “because I can,” David retains a middle-class concern with waste, patrolling thermostats and electric bills with a neurotic ardor.
But the title doesn’t lie: this is Jackie’s movie. A Botoxed, artificially buxom former Mrs. (not Miss) Florida turned socialite and mother of eight, Jackie’s moneyed tastelessness (and plunging neckline) initially invites scorn. Greenfield lingers over the family’s painted portraits, where they are depicted wearing royal robes, and tags along as Jackie takes a chauffeured limo ride to McDonalds. Her shopping trips are epic events, and the more-more-more mentality extends everywhere.
“I couldn’t stop having them,” she says of her children. “It was like an addiction.”
Once the bottom drops out, however, and David emotionally disengages from the family (and the film), Greenfield clearly comes to respect Jackie’s indomitability and good humor. Though comfortably ensconced in a cocoon of wealth, Jackie lives in palpable fear of her moody, petty-tyrant husband, who regularly emphasizes her transience.
“Once you turn forty,” David tells Jackie at one point, “I’ll trade you in for two twenty-year-olds.” (Jackie turns 40 without any such incident, though later David does say "I'd rather wait till you're sixty, so I can trade you in for three twenty-year-olds.") Thrown back on her own devices, Jackie discovers who her real friends are, which is to say … almost nobody. But she endures, and she adapts, exemplifying the capitalist ethic even as the Siegels bleed millions of dollars.
Post-crash, the Siegel residence doesn’t quite decompose into Grey Gardens, but their Christmas party is understaffed, the electricity is rationed, and pets perish from lack of basic care. The kids have to learn the indignity of commercial air travel, and even public schooling. The Queen of Versailles begrudgingly allows that reduced circumstances are trying, even for billionaires. Beginning as an outsider’s visit to the stratosphere of the 0.000001 percent, the film develops into a widening of the big tent of the economically straitened.
Still, Greenfield knows which side she’s on. While Westgate management sends its salespeople into the fray with the corporate assurance that they’re “saving lives,” the film emphasizes the plain fact that the timeshare industry exists and prospers by exploiting the American middle-class desire to “feel rich,” however temporarily. As with many of the collapse’s primary culprits, Westgate sells the ability to overreach. In the film, we even see the Siegels earning extra income by renting their Rolls-Royce out to wedding processions.
What's perhaps most astonishing is that the movie was allowed to happen at all. Even if they initially wanted to expose their American dream to the public, why did the Siegels continue to trust an outsider like Greenfield after their financial and personal situations went sour? Doesn’t wealth buy privacy anymore? And indeed, feeling betrayed by Greenfield’s portrayal of his business woes, and uncomfortable with a narrative that portrays him as down and out, David Siegel recently filed a lawsuit against the film, describing it as “a staged theatrical reproduction, albeit using nonprofessionals in starring roles (as themselves).” (A recent New York Times article about the feud does question the veracity of the film's narrative timeline, but finds the brunt of the lawsuit baseless.) Siegel tried to prevent the film’s Sundance premiere, even as his wife showed up to the Park City screening in a fur coat. Through David’s legal activities, the Siegels are unwittingly spearheading the film’s P.R. campaign. Not every documentary becomes the subject of New Yorker and New York Times reports a month before release.
The Siegels’ undiminished appetite for publicity is one of Versailles’ most fascinating subjects, and while it certainly contributed to their undoing, it could also provide a stepping stone. Budding celebrities of a post-crash media landscape, the Siegels could well surprise us all by repackaging their supposed humbling into a kind of cultural capital.
They know how to leverage. And they’ll certainly dream big.
'The Queen of Versailles' opens Friday, and is showing at the Angelika and Film Society Lincoln Center.
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