Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 30, 2012 7:43 pm 
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An American débâcle

The Queen of Versailles is an American story of capitalist triumph -- and defeat, and resurgence, the latter beyond the film's scope. It's a chronicle of ugly, brash, tasteless conspicuous consumption. It's the story of one American family, their houses, their children, their white Spitz dogs that poop all around the house.

The "queen" is Jackie Siegel, a 40-something, bleach-blond, big-boobed, botox-injected woman from Binghamton, New York State, an engineer who quit IBM to become a model and beauty contestant, then a trophy wife, a queen in her second marriage after an abusive first one. Her husband now, who likes to give her little pursed-lips kisses on the mouth, is the 70-something time-share mogul David Siegel, his company, Westlake, based in Florida and Vegas. Jackie raises seven kids plus one "inherited" child, and she's hooked on certain activities. One important one: having children: she says she got addicted to giving birth, but would never have had so many if not supplied with nannies. The house is 26,000 square feet, grand, vaguely Palladian, Kitsch-French inside, with life-sized oil paintings of the occupants, one of them posing as a Roman emperor and his queen; gilded furniture, satin drapes, those white dogs running around everywhere, a python, one daughter's pet, which might eat the puppies, and piles of acquired junk, for Jackie is also addicted to shopping. Sixteen-thousand-dollar shoes. Handbags of similar cost. The handbags a good investment, she says, because if she needs cash she can sell them on eBay.

These surroundings are a glitzy ugly mess. But rather than tidy up, the Siegels plan to move on to a much, much bigger mansion, three times bigger to be exact, a looming 90,000-square-foot monstrosity based on an impression of Versailles with a dash of the Vegas Paris Hotel. When asked why he would build what turns out to be the biggest private "home" in America he says, "Because I can." Not obviusly because he should. It makes no sense. Nor does the Queen of Versailles (who never gets to occupy her ersatz Versailles) know how to live like a queen.

This documentary has been received with somewhat more enthusiasm than it deserves. Unless you are a connoisseur of bad taste and conspicuous display this isn't a very interesting story, and though it's packed tight with little jokes for the self-congratulating viewer, it's never a very good movie. It's shot over a number of years -- we see several of the children spurt up in size and grow in maturity -- but the chronology is never made clear and may be fudged, and the principals seem initially much more often to be posing for the camera than caught off guard by it. But like many documentary filmmakers, Lauren Greenfeld got lucky, because something unexpected happened that changed her subjects' world rather drastically.

This event was the 2007 financial crisis. As a result of it David says on camera that this film, which started out as one more example of the family's conspicuous self-display, has turned into of a "riches to rags" story. Eventually Siegel is faced with a choice. He must either forfeit his $400 million investment in the Vegas Westlake, the crown jewel of his timeshare kingdom, thereby saving the rest of his properties; or he can hold onto the Vegas Westlake and stall for time, thus risking the loss of everything else. He bucked most of his staff in insisting on holding onto Vegas Westlake. Apparently he has ultimately succeeded and has revived his timeshare empire. But one of the film's biggest weaknesses is that it ends before that resolution happens, and skips the details of how. David got tired of the shooting. He was suffering enough. And so the film signs off on the Siegels in mid-crisis. (Later David sued the distributor, unhappy with the way the film shows his moments of severest self-doubt.)

As the downturn and the shutdown of mortgages and collapses of banks rapidly take place, the Siegel boat and private plane are sold. Construction on the mega-"home" ends. On an air trip, the kids ask what all these other people are doing in their plane. They've never flown "commercial." Once at their destination Jacke and the kids have to rent a car from Hertz. "Can you tell us the name of the driver?" she asks, not realizing rentacars don't come with those. David's Rolls is rented out for weddings now. Worst of all, the household staff is reduced from 19 to four, and the dog poop multiplies on the carpets. The nannies are terribly overworked, the most faithful a sad longtime exile from her own family in the Philippines, reduced to living in a playhouse for the twins in the back yard. David keeps saying to cut down on costs, but with shopaholic Jackie he's talking to a brick wall. Then at a particularly face-losing moment, when asked if he gains strength from his marriage, he flatly says "no" and adds that his wife is just like one more child. He gets testy about the lights being left on and threatens to have the electricity cut off.

One of the most interesting things is that because it rests on property and dubious mortgages, the Siegel empire falls, or at least threatens to fall, the way ordinary small income real estate investors have fallen. David was tempted by risky loans and the lure of more and more cash just like workers maxing out their credit cards, mortgaging all his properties that had been largely bought for cash. And so he seems, though he probably isn't, virtually threatened with homelessness. The bank forecloses on the unfinished "Versailles" mansion. Large segments of the timeshare empire are shut down, thousands of employees let go.

Another thing that's interesting is that the family seems so ordinary -- or worse than ordinary. They may be of the .01 percent, but their taste is lower middle class, their surroundings are kitsch. The forty-something Jackie wears blouses that show not just cleavage but big fat round bulbs of boob. She goes around the house in a short-shorts outfit, dressed like a floozy. She buys lunch at MacDonald's, and stocks up at Walmart on SUV-loads of junky toys for the kids. That kitschy TV show "Life Styles of the Rich and Famous" might not want to look very closely at the Siegels' lifestyle; it emphasizes quantity over quality to such an extent. And they become more ordinary: the kids are transferred to public schools.

Of course this family isn't really ordinary: David Siegel is a remarkable self-made billionaire, and it seems a tossup whether even after the great recession the kids will ever have to work. The Siegels made me think of the Seventies public television series about the Louds, "An American Family," which was scandalous and fascinating. Whether it's due to lack of access or less volatile subjects, Greenfield is not so lucky in having rifts and surprise revelations such as the Louds offered, not to mention the intricate and ongoing family scandal that Andrew Jarecki uncovered quite by accident in Capturing the Friedmans. This film makes the most of the family's discomfort with David's moody isolation in a big study at the height of his struggle to save his fortune, but this is only one evening's bad moment. Jackie seems to remain unswervingly loyal to her husband, and the kids seem mild, lulled perhaps by "stuff," but not particularly emotional or outspoken. Despite brief interviews with the "inherited" daughter from an earlier marriage, who has an independent point of view, and the oldest of Jackie's daughters, the brood doesn't take on much of a shape. The only semblance of family detail is provided by David's son by an earlier marriage, who works hard as a leader in the business, coaching the sales staff. But he tells the camera he and David are just business associates: there's no warmth. We see also at a birthday party staged for David, post economic fall, that he really never has time for anything but his addiction, business.

For me, the Siegels are too real and too ordinary for schadenfreude. This is a documentary that, because of its focus on things and quantities, is more superficial than many family chronicles, but of course since its quantities are uniquely large, it attracts our curiosity and at moments arouses our astonishment.

The Queen of Versailles debuted at Sundance in January 2012. Distributed in the US by Magnolia, it opened July 20, 2012 and opens in the UK September 7.

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