Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Can you smell the hubris brewing?

The Queen of Versailles (U.S., 2012) directed by Lauren Greenfield, 1 hour, 41 minutes

"Let Them Eat Crow" was a headline the New York Times review used about this documentary. That's a little harsh. Jackie and David Siegel are, or were, uber-rich, extravagant and oblivious to the repercussions of limitless spending. That soon changed with disastrous results for them.

But I wish I felt the same compassion towards the subjects of this film that the filmmaker Greenfield appears to have towards Jackie Siegel (said "Queen" in the title) and her husband David Siegel, the so-called time share mogul based in Orlando, FL. His company was, pre-recession, the biggest private time-share developer in the country. I have to say that much of the time I felt disgust and disappointment with them even as they endured their most strenuous woes watching their wealth disappear when the 2008 recession hit.

Siegel built a series of time share resorts under the name Westgate Resorts in Florida and became a billionaire. Jackie was a fairly ordinary girl from a humble background in New York state, pretty enough to be a model in New York and thirty years David’s junior. The years are catching up with her though which adds to the poignancy of her situation. Her fresh, girl next door looks are now enhanced by botox, leopard prints and silicone implants assisted by the bravest push up bras on the planet.

When the doc starts they are at the height of their prosperity and in the midst of building the biggest home in the U.S. modeled on Versailles, the former residence of Marie Antoinette. You can smell the hubris brewing can’t you?

The recession devastates the subprime mortgage industry and Siegel’s business starts to tank. The building of the house ceases and the couple must make drastic changes to their lifetyle: reducing household staff in their Orlando mansion from nineteen to four beleaguered nannies who care for eight children under sixteen (seven are Jackie's and David’s with the eighth being Jackie’s niece). The kids are taken out of private school; the personal jet is gone and they must fly commercial; Jackie starts Christmas shopping at Walmart and buying meals at McDonalds (arriving by limo no less). Both intimate that the kids may have to do something drastic, like get a college education, if things don’t work out.

It’s hard to like this family (with the exception of Jackie) at times. They behave like hillbillies. Dog poop everywhere goes unnoticed and unattended to by family except for the nannies; there are so many pets (two of which die during the course of the film due to neglect) that the atmosphere is circus like; there is such an excess of clothing, toys, gadgets, that it sickens to watch the accumulation of excessive material crap. Obscene is also a word that has been employed here in describing their lifestyle. Sadly, the most sensible of the Siegel family appears to be Jackie's 16 year old niece Jonquil who was rescued from a dirt poor background to come and live with the Siegels and who often comments on the surreal nature of their life.

Jackie is sweet enough and truly goodhearted (helping both family and friends with money in times of financial need) but she seems naive and bewildered about how things have come to this stage. Yet she cannot stop her compulsive shopping. I struggle to imagine how a grown woman thinks a rented car from Hertz comes with a driver or why buying absurdly overpriced purses (Jackie was a personal client of Donatella Versace) is a good investment as one can sell them on eBay afterwards. Although Jackie is a loving mother, a great deal of the mothering falls to the four Filipino nannies who have their own disappointments and tragedies to deal with.

David comes off very badly - an ill-tempered troll who literally gets physically uglier and more nasty-tongued as the film goes on although the filmmaker does nothing to try and portray him as such. He is exhausted by his efforts to keep the business together and seems to take it out on Jackie who tries to cajole him out of his work den for a birthday dinner or offer endearments that he repulses with joking threats that when she turns sixty he will trade her in for three twenty years olds. As Jackie is David’s third wife this may not be an idle threat.

The final shot is telling … as fireworks from Disneyland explode in the background we see the half finished Versailles house in the foreground in the semi-shambles of partial construction. The American dream, beautiful, exciting, overwhelming, over-shadowing the 21st c. reality: economic depression and the disillusioning impossibility of that dream in the current climate.

And true to the nature of her subjects, the filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has recently said that David is suing her for the portrayal of him and the business. And Jackie just keeps showing up at premieres of the film with a big smile on her face … just happy to be there.

The couple in happier, more prosperous times (pre-2008) ...

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