Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Queen of Versailles

Not all of the victims of the 2008 financial crisis were poor.  It's true that a lot of people lost homes who could scarcely, or not at all, afford to do so.  And it's true that the financial crisis led to a concurrent (and still continuing) employment crisis, where people already on the edge of financial ruin lost their jobs as well.  But time-share mogul David Siegel, who had been planning to move his family into a larger house modeled after Versailles (the largest house in America, but who's counting) before the economy collapsed, was just as much of a victim as anyone else.  More so by some reckonings, since he lost considerably more of his money than most people could even imagine it was possible to lose.

No, just kidding, David Siegel is scum.  It's a wonder he allowed filmmaker Lauren Greenfield to continue to film him once the movie morphed from "rich people building unfathomably large house" to "rich people learning to continue to be rich, but slightly less so."  There is not a single point in the film where he comes across as anything other than a money and status-obsessed huckster who treats his family like they're living props who happen to occupy the same space as him (it is no surprise at all that he was the man who did this.)  Towards the end of the film, as he desperately tries to salvage his business empire, the film finds him more often than not holed up in his grimy study, surrounded by stacks upon stacks of papers, begging for money from investors and shunning his family when he's not actively berating them for various money-related misdeeds.  He is a fully unsympathetic figure, a man who allowed his children from his first wife to live in poverty while he built that multi-million dollar empire, and if the film had been about him it would have been nothing but schadenfreude all the way down.

But this film is not really about him, it's about the titular queen, his wife Jackie.  And Jackie is a woman with a lot of facets, someone who asks an airport rental car agent who her driver will be with a straight face, but who also sends her childhood friend 5000 dollars in order to save the friend's house from foreclosure.  Upon surveying Versailles, in the pre-crisis part of the film, she walks up a staircase with a friend and remarks, "this is the staircase I would use if I wanted to visit the children."  And, admittedly, things like this keep happening all throughout the film; she is puzzled by the fact that the bailout money that was sent from the taxpayers to the banks isn't being used to help people like her family.  So it's easy to write her off as just another rich trophy wife who believes that the world owes her something.  But after spending 100 minutes with her, when she claims, at the end of the film, that if her and her husband had to move into a truly regular house, in a regular neighborhood, and live like middle class people, that she would do it, you believe her, or at least I did.  Because despite how badly her perspective has been warped by the amount of money she lives with, she does seem to care for the people around her, her nanny-raised but reasonably doted-upon children, her friends and family that she left behind when she moved from Binghamton, New York out into the wider world, and even perhaps her husband (although that seems less likely).

The film is a little bit muddled about the time frame.  The Siegels' fortunes are never completely clear - when things go south after '08, the family jumps between being in seemingly truly difficult straits to continuing to spend money with utter abandon.  Jackie receives a 2000-dollar can of caviar for Christmas, but David flips out about too many lights being turned on in their house.  Greenfield could have spent more time establishing just how warped the Siegels' relationship to money actually is by delving into the numbers of their lifestyle; as it is, we get talk of facts and figures here and there about David's business, but never a full reckoning of the Siegels' assets, and just how sheltered they truly are, as individuals, from the real consequences of the financial crisis.

The secret weapons of The Queen of Versailles are the people who work for the Siegels, especially the Filipino nanny who raises their children and hasn't seen her own children in 2 decades.  Her pain is palpable when she talks about trying to send money home to the Phillipines so her family can build their own modest house, and when the Siegels hit their rough patch it hits her hard too - at one point the film has her living in one of the kids' abandoned playhouses on the grounds of their estate, although the film does not establish whether this is a part-time occupancy or a full-time one.  Neither David nor his son, who occupies a top position in his company, ever comments on the fact that what they do (sell time-shares to people who only have access to the kind of money required to buy one because of loose credit in a booming economy) is the same thing the banks did to their business, giving them loans to buy more and more real estate to turn into time shares because money was cheap and investment was loose before everything fell apart.  They lament the latter once it all collapses around them, and never once connect the dots to the former and what a scam their business model really is.  David even refuses to give up on Versailles, the boondoggle to end all boondoggles, because he believes a turnaround of his fortunes is imminent.  But Jackie, perhaps naive but mostly guileless Jackie, understands what a fleeting pleasure it really was, and lets it go without a real fuss.  David Siegel is the perfect villain for understanding what happened when the world economy melted down in 2008, a money-hungry scumbag who is never satisfied with what he has and didn't even have the foresight to put a bit of money away for his childrens' college fund while he was building a 90,000 square foot ode to tacky American excess.  But even though Jackie lives the life of a trophy wife and is completely warped by the copious amounts of money in her life, she never completely lost her humanity to it.  A-

(I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the funniest scene in the film; after the collapse, Jackie goes to Wall-Mart with her kids and one of her maids to do Christmas shopping.  The family is in fairly dire financial straits and everyone has had to cut back, which includes indulging less in shopping.  She ends up buying 3 carts full of crap, which includes a bike for one of the kids.  When they get home, the maid takes the bike into a garage that is filled near to bursting with.....a bunch of bicycles.  She casually leans the new bike against the pile of old bikes, and walks off.)

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