Greetings from Park City, Utah! I'm here for the Sundance Film Festival, checking out many films that you should put on your "must see" list for the coming year: The Invisible War (a documentary on the high rates of and startlingly incompetent responses to sexual assault in the military), Ethel (a touching, funny, and very personal documentary on Robert Kennedy's wife, made by his daughter, director Rory Kennedy). Included on that list is The Queen of Versailles, which is both an infuriating and humanizing portrait of the economic collapse from the perspective of one of the country's richest families.
If there's one theme I've noticed in my first few days at the Sundance Film Festival, it's that filmmakers have found inspiration in our current economic climate. There's Nicholas Jarecki's Arbitrage, about a hedge fund billionaire making decisions of ambiguous moral (and financial) integrity; Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce's We're Not Broke, an exposé on corporate tax loopholes; Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Detropia, on the rise and decline on Detroit in the last century; and many others that I hope to see and write about in the coming week.
The Queen of Versailles takes the "let them eat cake!" for personal stories of the economic collapse, this one told from the perspective of the 1%. Lauren Greenfield's documentary film focuses on David Siegel, a time-share resort billionaire, and his wife, Jackie. Greenfield began filming in 2007, when the Siegels were in the midst of building their 96,000 square foot home nicknamed Versailles (because their 26,000 square foot home simply wasn't large enough). The palatial home is infinitely, indefensibly large, a planned monument to the pinnacle of American consumption.
Then, of course, the Siegels' dreams collapsed, along with so many the dreams of so many others. The millions of dollars of marble, the Fabergé eggs, the antique furniture—all of which were set to furnish the grandiosely tacky home—sit in storage.
The film centers on Jackie, who challenges our expectations at every turn. She's a beauty queen (a former Mrs. Florida), who, when faced with the choice to either become a secretary or a computer engineer, went to college to become a computer engineer. She's a surgically enhanced third wife of a man thirty years her senior, who displays genuine affection for and protection of her husband. She gives a childhood friend $5,000 to help her keep her house in the midst of her own financial crisis, and, along with her own seven children, she's raising her brother's daughter.
She's also incredibly, intensely infuriating.
Jackie says she'd never have had so many children if she'd known she couldn't afford nannies; she bemoans the fact that her children will have to go to college and get jobs. She's seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her: she spends frivolously, she allows her innumerable dogs to relieve themselves on the floor, she says obtuse things to her housekeeper like, "Aren't you glad you won't have to clean this house [Versailles]?" In one scene she goes Christmas shopping for her children (at Walmart; she's trying to economize) and buys her son a bike. When she returns home, we see at least 20 children's bikes of all sizes in a haphazard pile in the garage. When she flies commercial with her children (for the first time in their lives), she goes to the rental car counter and asks the Hertz representative: "What's my driver's name?"
The audience groans.
Neither of the Siegels had wealthy upbringings, but they have fully adopted the flagrant conspicuous consumption and extravagance that so often accompanies their level of wealth. It's as if there's a script billionaires should follow, and they're just reading their lines.
But, at the same time, their vulnerabilities are candid and relatable. The Siegels are wealthy because they sold real estate—specifically, they sold timeshares that people couldn't afford—which they used to build Versailles, which they couldn't afford. Their dreams for a bigger, better lifestyles were only possible because they could sell that dream to everyone else. When the real estate bubble burst, they were in the same situation as so many others because they'd bought what they were selling.
I'm not suggesting we should feel sorry for Jackie and her family: they remain, to an extent, out-of-touch and defensive. Still, her story can show the ways in which the economic crisis can bring out not only the hierarchical differences that divide us, but the hopes and flaws that unite us.
And, if that lesson doesn't ring true, at least this one might: if you want to live an oblivious and extravagant lifestyle without being tragically humbled, perhaps don't name your home Versailles.