August 23, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

Hello, TLC? I have a TV show to pitch you...
Grade: B +
Director: Lauren Greenfield
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

The most devious trick pulled by The Queen of Versailles is that it spends a good half-hour convincing you it’s the one thing that it ultimately isn’t: grist for the milled masses foraging for any morsel of schadenfreude at the expense of the 1%. And talk about the perfect vehicle: mega-rich real estate magnate David Siegel and his ex-model turned trophy wife Jackie are busy living the elite life and constructing their 90,000 square-foot dream house in Orlando that goes by the working name Versailles, what would be America’s largest private home.

The year is 2007, and David is owner of Westgate Resorts, a real estate firm he started out of his garage that grew to the largest privately held time-share company in the world. David brags about delivering Florida for George W. Bush in the 2000 election and bankrolls beauty pageants seemingly so he can scan its contestants for candidates to be the next Mrs. Siegel. Most of all, he is sinking much of his wealth into construction of his most lavish resort, the 52-story PH Towers Westgate in Las Vegas.

Jackie, a 40-something former beauty queen 31 years David’s junior, whiles away her days shopping and hobnobbing. Outsourcing care of the couple’s eight children and four dogs to her house staff of 19, Jackie excitedly monitors both her Botox injections and the progress of Versailles, including the glut of adornments imported to decorate the mammoth manse.

What starts as a cinematic study of Versailles’ singular extravagance—in all senses of the word—morphs into something more profound once the subprime mortgage crisis hits and the housing bubble bursts. With director and renowned photographer Lauren Greenfield, and her cameras, returning for several days every few months, we bear witness to the gradual yet precipitous erosion of the Siegels’ fortunes, notably David’s stubborn refusal to relinquish PH Towers, now a financial sinkhole, and the devolving of Versailles from a burgeoning oasis to an overgrown, unfinished derelict.

The Siegels’ overindulgence, spearheaded by Jackie’s dizzy bliss, is foisted for farcical scorn during their mid-aughts heyday. The characters are framed in basic terms: David, while boorish, is also a self-made man and American success story, while Jackie is the superficial gold digger. As the Siegels’ luck changes, however, so too does the portraits of our leads. David becomes withdrawn and surly, simultaneous with the audience’s ironic realization that his fortune is built on a foundation of real estate speculation, selling pipe dreams to working-class couples who “want to vacation like a Rockefeller.” Meanwhile, Jackie surprisingly doubles down on the devotion to her family. She’ll never win any awards for Mom (or Wife or Employer or Pet Owner) of the Year, but Jackie—who grew up a poor kid in New York State—stands by her man under circumstances in which true trophy wives would dart for their divorce attorney.

There’s an intelligence and symmetry to Greenfield’s presentation that elevates The Queen of Versailles beyond a simple derision of rank economic excess. There’s the eye-opening parallel between David and his father, both men who ultimately squandered their fortunes in the sands of Vegas (David on high-rises, dad at the gambling tables). And there’s the film-ending imagery of fireworks exploding in the night sky over Disney World, shot through an empty window frame at Versailles, a callback to a throwaway remark by Jackie earlier in the film explaining why the window was placed in that spot to begin with.

Indeed, Greenfield won Best Documentary Directing honors at the Sundance Film Festival last January. But while Jackie attended the film’s premiere, David was suing Greenfield and Sundance for defamation. The legal basis for suit—ably chronicled in a June 2012 article in The New York Times by Joe Nocera—appears flimsy. But David’s complaint does give pause over some of Greenfield’s process. His gripe that certain scenes are shown out of context or strict chronological order in order to amplify dramatic effect is common to all strata of filmmaking, including documentary. On the hand, while Greenfield denies that she encouraged Jackie to rent a stretch limousine for a lunch outing to McDonald’s (one of the film’s signature scenes), she admits that much of David’s anxiety during their last visit to the Siegels’ home in late 2011 was due to his desire for the film crew to leave, not depression over his financial and family situation as the movie leads you to believe.

Still, there’s no equivocating the squalor of David’s TV room, where he secludes himself a la Howard Hughes during the film’s latter stages, desperately divining a solution to his wealth woes. Moreover, there’s rarely been a more provocative juxtaposition of haves and have-nots than when a now cash-strapped Jackie is forced to do her Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart but—in an act of cockeyed defiance—brings along her housekeeper and buys enough merchandise to fill several shopping carts. While she may not reign over Versailles, this queen isn’t ready to abdicate her throne.

Neil Morris

No comments: