Friday, January 4, 2013

The Queen of Versailles Movie Review

The economic crisis has been hard on everyone. Yes, believe it or not, even well-off to wealthy people lose out during hard times. The documentarian Lauren Greenfield didn’t initially set out to show what happens to a wealthy family after the stock market took a massive tumble in 2008, but that’s what she ended up with. Greenfield first approached Jackie and David Siegel about making a film showcasing the house they were building in Orlando, Florida. It would have been the largest private residence in America, although the Siegels claim they didn’t have that as a goal when they started. David Siegel is the owner of Westgate Resorts, the largest timeshare company in the world. He just wanted to move his family, consisting of his wife and seven children, to a home that didn’t feel as cramped. The 20,000 square feet they were living in just wasn’t cutting it anymore.

You could look at the Siegels as they are depicted in The Queen of Versailles and see a family that just consumes and consumes, throwing money around as if it didn’t matter. I think it’s very hard for non-wealthy people to see anything different in the richest people. But Greenfield captures something truly special about this family. When the business starts to go belly up (a business model that depends on cheap mortgages to survive can’t really go anywhere when the banks are no longer giving mortgages) and thousands of employees have to be let go, the Siegels no longer have the funding to continue building their new 90,000 square foot palace.

Oh, woe is them, you might be saying. It is difficult to feel bad for a family that has to continue living in such modest conditions as having only ten bathrooms in their home, but their story is not at all unlike any other family, middle class or otherwise, hardest hit by poor financial times. They were a family, like many others, that lived beyond their means. Most people do. It doesn’t matter how much money you start with. If you put everything you have into a piece of real estate that fails, you end up with nothing. The Siegels have millions tied up in an unfinished home that they can’t even sell. And like many other families, it becomes difficult to give up certain reflexive habits such as compulsive shopping. There’s a scene of Jackie and the kids nearly cleaning out a toy store, arriving home with two SUVs full of gifts, including multiple copies of the same board games, for Christmas.

The real success of Greenfield’s film is how much the Siegels come off looking like any other American family. She takes the time to get into their own backgrounds as well. David rose up from working class upbringing and Jackie was born and raised in upstate New York. She had a lengthy working life before becoming a beauty queen and meeting David and falling into the lap of luxury.

Allegedly there is some manipulative and creative editing going on in the film. Greenfield cut things together in a way that suggests causes and effects that don’t really exist. Unfortunately you have to expect that in most documentaries because filmmakers have agendas. If you can see past the marble floors, excessive exuberance, and fur coats to the heart of a family in crisis, there is something of the human condition to be found in the Siegels’ story and some important lessons we can all glean from their mistakes of overextending themselves.

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