Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

I watched more than my usual share of documentaries in July and August.  I'm not a big fan of documentaries.  I prefer my documentaries to be more of the Victory at Sea variety.  The line between documentary and reality show has become blurred.  I think too many audience members accept the documentarian's work as "fact" when in fact it is frequently "fact filtered through a subjective prism" opposed to my blog where I state unassailable facts.  Still, when I view a documentary in the same manner as a narrative, I can be entertained and even enlightened.

The Queen of Versailles played at the 2012 SF International Film Festival and has enjoyed an extended run at the local Landmark Theaters.  I saw it at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

The Queen of Versailles; directed by Lauren Greenfield; documentary; (2012) - Official Website

The Queen of Versailles was certainly entertaining.  Directed Lauren Greenfield started the project with the goal of following David & Jackie Siegel as they build the largest single family dwelling in the United States.  Outgrowing their 26,000 square foot house near Orlando, the Siegels plan a 90,000 sq. ft. structure to house their belongings, 8 children and household staff.  However, construction is ground to a halt as the Great Recession derails their financing.

Filmed over two years, Queen of Versailles showcases the opulent lifestyle of the Siegels, the stress their marriage faces as their fortunes reverse and unexpectedly draws a parallel to the financial hardships many families find themselves in.  Septuagenarian David Siegel is a time share mogul (Westgate Resorts) who married his trophy wife Jackie, 31 years his junior.  As the film begins, the billionaires are riding high with private jets and Jackie's million dollar shoe & purse collection.  The film implies that Dave is an asshole who hints that he may have committed election improprieties in Florida during the 2000 Presidential race.  Jackie is presented as a vacuous woman who spends her days spending her husband's money.

They start off with grand plans for their new mansion.  The film's title comes from the Palace of Versailles, the design inspiration for the Siegel mansion.  As the economy tanks, the Siegels are forced to halt construction and eventually scale back their lifestyle.  David hunkers down as he seems more interested in making money than spending it.  Jackie however seems to have trouble adjusting to her new circumstances.  We witness the Siegel children as they are forced to fly commercial for the first time in their lives and later go to public school.  We laugh as Jackie asks the rental car agency clerk for the name of her driver thinking it is more akin to a limo service.  Towards the end we see Jackie going downscale as she shops for Xmas gifts at Walmart (she buys multiple shopping carts full of stocking stuffers).  Greenfield skillfully depicts the conspicuous consumption that most of the audience likely expected going into the film.

More interesting for me is the change which occurs in the Siegel's relationship.  Jackie was a Mrs. Florida winner when she met David which gives the impression she lacked intelligence.  Her behavior through most of the flim reinforces that impression.  However, glimpses into her past reveal some surprising history.  Siegel graduated with a computer engineering degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and went on to be hired by IBM.  A few years younger than Jackie and with an engineering degree of my own, I can attest that IBM was a very prestigious company for engineers to be hired in the late 1980s.  Jackie says she left IBM soon after starting because her boss had a computer program which counted down the seconds until he could retire and "really start living his life."  This was too depressing a future for Jackie to contemplate so she left get a wife-beater...and model swimsuits...and compete in beauty pageants.  Her career choices is more damning of our society than necessarily Jackie.

As the film progresses, Jackie shows quite a bit of patience for her husband's loutish behavior; more so than her children who begin to resent their father as he verbally mistreats their mother and works longer and longer hours.  Jackie even displays some self-awareness and an understanding that she and her marriage are not being portrayed positively.  After the film was shot, the Siegels complained they were being portrayed inaccurately and that some of the scenes were staged.  I wonder why they allowed themselves to be filmed at all; especially as the economy faltered and their relationship became strained.  As his finances deteriorate, David treats his wife as if she is his ninth child and Jackie clearly recognizes his patronizing behavior. 

The third aspect which I found fascinating is how David Siegel explains his predicament.  He uses some of the same catchphrases as the Occupy Movement.  He paints himself as a victim of easy credit and predatory bankers who won't temporarily extend additional credit which would allow him to ride out his financial storm.  Amazingly, Greenfield was able to invoke some sympathy from me towards the Siegels.

Since the limited release of Queen of Versailles, the Siegels have launched their own media counterattack. I read that the Siegels are about to restart construction on their Versailles.  At the end of the movie, I thought the Siegels would be divorced by now but they are still together.  In the film, David joked (half-joked?) that he was going to trade Jackie in for two 20 year olds.  Jackie may even get a new career out of the film - she claims to have been offered a role on a reality television series.  Ironically, this thoroughly enjoyable documentary confirmed all that I don't like about modern documentaries or perhaps more accurately, all that I don't like about modern society.

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