August 06, 2012

MOVIES: The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)

The Queen of Versailles is a documentary about David and Jackie Siegel, a spectacularly wealthy Florida couple whose lives crumble when the family business is hit hard by the financial collapse. They find themselves teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, having to shop for Christmas presents for the 8 kids at Wal-Mart, and at risk of losing the massive 90,000-square-foot mansion they're building. That home is called (and inspired by) Versailles; it's got 10 kitchens, a grand ballroom with a balcony large enough to hold a full orchestra, and a separate wing for the children.

Neither of the Seigels coms from a wealthy background. David built his business -- he's the "king of time-share resorts" -- through obsessive devotion to it, largely at the expense of his family; Jackie is his third wife, and his son acknowledges that their relationship is purely a business one. Jackie's 35 years younger, a former Mrs. Florida with a computer engineering degree and a Botox-frozen face.

It would be easy to make the Siegels monstrous villains, but director Lauren Greenfield gives us a more nuanced portrait. Yes, the Siegels are spoiled and greedy, and David has built his fortune by taking advantage of people who can't really afford the wealthy lifestyle he's offering them, but they do acknowledge that the employees who are being laid off and losing their homes are suffering far more than they are.

And Jackie, in particular, comes off mostly as naive; this kind of wealth is new to her, and while she doesn't relish the thought of losing it, and says some painfully embarrassing things ("I never would have had so many children if I didn't think I'd have the nannies"), she also comes across as a deeply loving mother and wife.

Ultimately, what we're left with is a sense that the Siegels, like their time-share customers, are trapped in the American cycle of always wanting more, always aspiring to a bigger, better home than they need or can afford. We're a society for whom there is no such thing as "enough." It's a problem that's destroying lives, and while it's tempting to laugh when we see that happening to the ridiculously wealthy, the laughter's undercut by the realization that the consequences are a lot more severe when you step a few rungs down the economic ladder.

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