Friday, November 16, 2012

DVD Review: The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles
Directed by: Lauren Greenfield.

It would have been very easy to make a documentary that simply mocks David and Jackie Siegel. After all, the make it so easy. He is the owner of the large, privately owned Time Share Company in the world. When the times were good, they had more money than they knew what to do with, which is why they started construction on the largest, single family home in America, which of course, they modeled after Marie-Antoinette’s palace Versailles. It was going to cost $100 million, but hey, they had the money. When asked why he was building it, David Siegel simply says “Because I can”. That’s probably the only reason that actually makes sense. Before the market crash of 2008, the Siegel’s lived in a world that even most rich people in America could never dream of. And then, it all came crashing down.

It must have been somewhat tempting for filmmaker Lauren Greenfield to make a movie that laughed at the Siegel’s, who saw their (temporary) downfall as a deserved comeuppance for the couple who are so far removed from normal people that they make Mitt Romney look like the Regular Joe he tried so hard to pass himself as this year by comparison. And yes, there are a few moments in the movie where Greenfield cannot resist including, which will make the audience feel a little superior to the Siegel’s (the out and out funniest moment in the film is one of those – when Jackie rents a car at Hertz and asks the bewildered clerk what the name of her driver is). Overall though, the movie, while not overly sympathetic to the Siegel’s, doesn’t take too many potshots at them either. It is a relatively honest portrait of the two – if they don’t like how they come off in the movie, they really have no one to blame but themselves.

David certainly comes off worse than Jackie does. He seems unaware of the irony when he complains that about the greedy banks who tempted himself with so much easy money, that he could never hope to repay unless the market kept going up and up and up, and then shutting it down when he needed it the most. Isn’t that precisely what a time share company does? Does David not realize he has no one but himself to blame for all the debt he has amassed, since he basically paid for everything in cash, and then mortgaged it back to the banks, so he could get more money, so he could do the same damn thing all over again? During the course of the film, Siegel gets increasingly worn down by everything around him – the financial strain he has put himself, and his company in.

On the other hand, Jackie simply seems a little oblivious to what is going on. Her idea of cutting back is going to Wal-Mart and spending thousands of dollars instead of going to designer stores. She wonders aloud why the bailout money has filtered down to regular people, like herself. She is clearly a trophy wife, who laughingly admits that her husband – who is 30 years older than her – always said when she turned 40 he’d trade her in for two 20 year olds. She’s over 40 now, and he hasn’t done so yet – perhaps because she has given him 7 children – or perhaps because doing so would simply cost him too much money. Yet, I couldn’t hate Jackie – couldn’t just simply mock her as an airhead. She may be somewhat clueless, but she’s likable. She may not know what the hell she’s doing, but damn it, she tries hard.

It is easy to hate what the Siegel’s represent however. They are super rich, and if David had been a little smarter, even the real estate crash wouldn’t have almost sunk him like it did (he is apparently, back on track now, after finally doing what everyone told him to do for years – let the banks have the money pit that was his Las Vegas Time Share). Surely, there had to be somewhat more worthwhile they could have spent their money on rather than $100 million house, complete with a bowling alley, two tennis courts, 10 kitchens and a closet so large Greenfield mistakes it for a bedroom. Isn’t that money supposed to trickle down somehow? But Siegel, of course, plays by a different set of rules than the rest of us, as the movie shows. A childhood friend of Jackie defaults on her mortgage, and is in danger of being foreclosed on. Jackie sends her $5,000 to help her out, but it’s too late, foreclosure proceedings have started, and although her friend now has the money to pay what she owes, the banks won’t help her out. When you owe $5,000 to a bank, you’re nothing. When you owe them hundreds of millions, you’re too indispensable.

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