Queen of Versailles opens today in San Francisco and a handful of other markets.
The Queen of Versailles is essentially a story about having to atone for the sins and hubris of the middle 2000s, when the country and the world was lousy with free credit we thought would never end and spending buttloads of money that wasn’t ours on a parade of silly sh*t that we didn’t need. The tale is exemplified here by David Siegel (left), CEO of Westgate Resorts, the world’s largest time-share company, and his fake beachball-titted former beauty queen of a 30-years-younger trophy wife, Jackie (right). “I… learned to love him,” Jackie tells director Lauren Greenfield.
Director Lauren Greenfield begins following David and Jackie just as they’re becoming local news fluff-piece fodder for building a 90,000 square-foot home in Orlando based on the castle at Versailles (“gaudy” doesn’t even begin to describe it). As they break ground, it turns out that theirs will be the single largest tacky McMansion in all of ‘Murka. Not only do they personify the sub-prime era with their own ridiculous house, the entire house itself was paid for on the back of sub-prime. David’s time-share company that made him his fortune happens to be a business that works by conning working people into believing it’s a better idea to buy a share of a vacation property on credit than spending money they do have on something significantly less opulent. Remember that South Park episode where the family goes on a free vacation to Aspen, but the whole time they can’t escape the guys trying to convince them to by a time share? Westgate are those guys. And not only is David a perfect emblem for Bush-era overextension, it turns out he also helped get the man elected. “I personally got George W. Bush elected,” he boasts at the beginning of the film.
“How do you do that?” asks Greenfield.
“I’d rather not say,” David says, pausing. “It wasn’t necessarily… legal.”
This would seem to make him a rather less-than-sympathetic character, but he quickly adds that if he hadn’t, maybe we wouldn’t have the Iraq War “and some other problems we have today,” suggesting that it was a decision that he regrets. And that’s sort of the crux of Queen of Versailles. A guy who recognizes his past sins and is actually on the hook for them. When the stock market suddenly goes to sh*t (almost immediately after Greenfield started filming), he suddenly realizes that his entire fortune is built on promises people probably can’t keep. Unlike other financial crisis villains who just took their bonuses and paid their fines out of the pockets of shareholders (and eventually taxpayers), David Siegel, unfortunately for him, had a habit of putting all his money back into his business. He even took out a mortgage on the giant, tacky eyesore he’d originally paid for in cash. He was a Ponzi who didn’t even know he was a Ponzi. So as the market goes down, it starts to pull him under with it, and he’s faced with a failing mortgage on a house failing because it was paid for with failing mortgages (“yo dawg, we put a mortgage on your mortgage so you could default while you default!”). How’s that for perfect symbolism? You can see why they named the movie after the house.
One of the amazing things about Queen of Versailles that you don’t see in many other documentaries is that the characters actually evolve. Characters who grow and learn are the key feature of any decent fictional screenplay according to Robert McKee (delivered so memorably by Brian Cox’s fictional portrayal in Adaptation). That’s a hard thing to pull off in a documentary, where you don’t get to just make sh*t up. Jackie begins the movie as, basically, a detestable c*nt, and probably would remain so if this was one of those aren’t-rich-people-awful reality shows on Bravo. In Queen of Versailles she’s allowed incredible nuance, as not just a ditzy blonde bikini model with a parade of tiny white dogs that shit all over her trashy furniture (which she is, partly), but also an intelligent former IBM engineer who valiantly tries to keep her family together and is at times capable of incredible understanding. Like when she tells a story about working with another engineer who had rigged up a clock that counted down the years, months, days, hours, and seconds until his retirement, illustrating what prompted her to quit the same day and become a model.
Queen of Versailles also has a fine collection of hilarious bit players and perfectly-timed, laugh-out-loud one-liners. The long-suffering real estate agent trying to unload their $75 million, unfinished Orlando dream palace continually pronounces it “Ver-sighs.” When the kids forget to feed the family’s monitor lizard (as part of their requisite neveau-riche menagerie of exotic pets) and it dies, the son walks away from the terrarium muttering to himself, “I didn’t even know we had a lizard.” The mom, lamenting the sad state of the family’s finances says sadly, “I told the kids they might have to go to college now.”
But the absurdity of the story is only funny because it’s also so important. They’re not just one family, but exemplary of a historical period. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Siegel says of the way banks (and he) pushed loans, only to suddenly clam up and demand repayment when the bubble burst. “No one is without guilt.”
It’s not a hugely triumphant story, and the characters aren’t perfectly sympathetic or perfectly detestable. They don’t learn how to solve their problems, only how to deal. The story itself defies the easy catharsis of something like, say, Anvil, and it’s not always what you’d call an “easy watch.” But it doesn’t try to be, and that’s a good thing.