Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

The theater had to put "DOC" next to The Queen of Versailles because a lot of people are apparently showing up thinking it's the French historical drama Farewell, My Queen, about the last days of—well, from what I can tell, a woman who's in love with Marie Antionette, while Antionette only has eyes for some other chick.

It's not really on my list, but the kids were intrigued by the story of this ultra-wealthy family that is trying to finish their American inspired-by-Versailles 90,000 square foot mansion. Even after I told them this probably wouldn't be as hilarious as they were imagining it.

The Boy had this whole Marx Brothers-style scenario imagined where Groucho's taking a bath in a bathroom on one of the upper floors, where the bathroom was open to the wall, and doors that opened into nowhere or had no walls around them. And so on.

That'd be hilarious.

This movie is also hilarious, though unintentionally so, if not by design of the filmmaker then by accident of the Siegels, David and Jackie, whose marvelous excess deteriorates rapidly after the market meltdown of 2008.

My concern was that this documentary was going to be a denouncement of American excess, and perhaps it was planned that way. Perhaps, even, the filmmakers felt that way. But, in fact, there's very little apparent judgment going on from what I can tell. (Of course they can, indeed must, edit in such a way as to craft some kind of narrative but if it was done here to grind an axe I couldn't tell.) It's not so much a denouncement, I think, as a cautionary tale—a subtle distinction, perhaps, but an important one.

I've seen the word "schadenfreude" used a lot in others' reviews of this film and I frankly didn't feel it. I didn't feel like the filmmakers' were gloating; I didn't feel like gloating while watching it.

Siegel made his fortune from just a small parcel of orange grove land (admirable!) by selling timeshares (questionable!), and he latched on to his third wife, Jackie (a former Miss Florida), 30 years his junior, 20 years ago. When the story starts, maybe a year before the 2008 crash, we're treated to visions of a life of astonishing excess.

The Siegels and their seven kids and adopted niece live in a 27,000 square foot mansion with their 12 dogs, and so much crap that they can't really contain it in those meager confines. There's a marvelous mishmash of high and low culture, with the Siegel's massive Rolls limo parked outside the local McDonald's, for example.

Neither of the Siegels came from money, but the unlimited tonnage of it they have has rendered them very nearly helpless and nigh incompetent at basic living skills. The extent to which you do not have to care—about anything!—is demonstrably debilitating, as their young niece (who went from living in a dirt-floor basement to moving into a mansion) fumbles with expressing on several occasions.

It's all fun-and-games until the market dries up and Siegel's business, which has been powered by loans, and which depends on people being able to get loans, has the rug pulled out from under it by the market crash.

There's a kind of touching scene where Jackie talks about how she thought the point of the bail out was so that the money would come to...regular people, like her and David. I mean, it's a laugh out loud moment because they're not regular people—but it's also true. The money given to the banks seems to have been used entirely to keep themselves solvent and done not a damn thing for the rest of us.

In a lot of ways, their massive wealth allowed the banks to screw them extra hard. In fact, it kind of looks like that was the plan: The bank sees a big pile of free money in Siegel's Vegas timeshare, that he's sunk $390 million into. He has the option of giving it up and maintaining his lifestyle or fighting for control and being ruined.

Poor David is just sure things are going to turn around any time now.

In the meantime, the family's carefully nurtured incompetence shows up in the most awful ways. Apparently, none of these dogs they own are housebroken. The floors literally end up covered in dog excrement. The lizard dies because nobody feeds or waters it. The niece is supposed to, but she blames not being taken to the pet store (the lizard had no water, either). One of the sons wasn't even aware they had a lizard.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden says "The things you own end up owning you." There's a lot of truth to that, but in this case, there is so much stuff, they can't even timeshare the owners. (See what I did there?)

For the most part, I didn't feel like they were bad people—or, quite frankly, very different from most people. Most people who are worth a billion dollars are prone to some sort of excess. There are worse things than building ridiculously large mansions. People were employed to build it and to furnish it, and on and on and on.

I think a lot of the schadenfreude I've seen is rooted in envy and moral posturing, in other words, than any real superiority. "I wouldn't do that if I had a billion dollars. I'd solve world hunger and stuff." Yeah, right. (Though I should say, my dad made millions in his life and gave it all away while living in a 1,500 square foot house in a lower middle-class suburb. So there are people like that. He also never talked about it.)

Siegel himself comes off the worst in this movie. He talks about his contributions to society and how much he values his kids, but he's kind of a hollow man. When he says he doesn't  care about the stuff, you believe him because he exclusively demonstrates an interest in work (and status).

He doesn't want to sell Versailles, not so much because he wants to live there, but because he wants to see it finished. He doesn't want to give in to the bank on his Vegas timeshare because that's his, he built it and he realizes he's been played.

So at the film's nadir, which is, sadly, toward the end of the film (and, one suspects, story), he has nothing. Jackie is highly flawed, but she tries to be a good wife to him, and he'll have none of it. He'll take no solace in her or his children—nothing matters but his business. He has no God, his connections with his community are tenuous: No one comes to bail him out, to save his work from the banks.

Jackie on the other hand, while she comes across spacey and disconnected, is actually a character of some depth. She was a small town girl who became an "engineer" (I'm guessing software) so she could go to work for IBM, which was the only shop in her town.

But one of her co-workers (or her boss, I forget which) showed her this program he'd written to countdown to the second when he was going to retire because that was when he was going to start living his life.

That sort of freaked her out and she left for Florida, became a model, became Miss Florida, married an abusive guy who she called the cops on and divorced, and hooked up with David. When she realized fecundity didn't have to destroy her figure and also that she could have a bunch of other people taking care of her children, she had seven of them.

One gets the sense that being constantly spurned by her husband is a big factor in her compulsive shopping. She scales back as they get poorer, buying excessive amounts of cheap crap (at one point, she walks out of a Wal-Mart with three operation board games, e.g.) instead of scads of ginormous Faberge eggs.

The two are humiliated at the prospect their children might have to fend for themselves in the world, but it's hard to see how that wouldn't be the best thing for all of them.

None of this excess, this disconnection, this unreality made me hate these people or take joy in their suffering. None of it made me hate America (where the rich can't be counted on to get richer, only the connected), though it made a good (and I'm sure deliberate) metaphor for America.

They just seemed human to me.

And to this day Versailles sits, stranded in limbo, not exactly being snapped up as a $75M "fixer".


  1. Hey, Darce.

    Thought of you when I was watching this.

    1. You know, I just realized that could be taken wrong. Jackie Siegel did NOT remind me of you.

      But I think you mentioned you had a friend who lost a house to bank shenanigans and I thought it was kind of funny (odd) to see it happen at the extreme here.

    2. LOL. Thank you.

      And yeah, a very good friend got scammed by Bank of America through that Obama loan modification program. I don't believe the administration cared about anything but looking like they were doing something. They gave money to the banks to offer these things and then the banks grabbed the money AND the homes.

      We live in scary times.

  2. That was rude of me. I did read the review, and as always, when you recommend a movie, it makes me want to see it.


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