Friday, April 12, 2013

The Queen Of Versailles (2012)

d. Lauren Greenfield -- netflix

North American culture has become obsessed with affluence.  It's the natural byproduct of a consumerist culture.  It's not longer enough to just have stuff, but you have to have the best stuff.  As a result, people are driving themselves deeper and deeper into debt in order to have stuff, and to project the appearance of affluence.  We're now in a new era of feudalism, the divide between the have and have nots, the 99 and the 1 percent, where the all-having 1 percent are basically guiding the bulk of North American culture and spreading it across the glove.  The haves cannot seem to have enough.  They want it all as long as there's any left to get.

Popular media is run by the haves, and since the moment they realized that millions of people at a time enjoy watching spoiled, nasty, talentless people behave rudely in public with a general disregard for common decency and civility, and a total disrespect for everyone (including most often themselves), it's flooded our society.  We've idolized the rich and famous in the past, but generally when celebrities or the "elite" society behaved badly in public, it was severely frowned upon and potentially career-killing.  Today, we celebrate the awful, starting with Paris and Nicole, making way for Kim, and busting the doors open for Snooki and an endless parade of "Real" Housewives and predatory Basketball Moms.  It's the new American dream, to have more money than you can possibly spend and not have to give a crap about anyone or anything anymore.  Popular media would have us to believe this is reality, and we can all have it all.

The Queen Of Versailles started as a documentary about a family who have it all, and want more.  David Siegal brought himself up from nothing, his beginnings were extremely modest, but he was frugal and shrewd, and when the right opportunity came up he started what became an empire of time shares, Westgate Resorts.  His wife, Jackie was also from humble beginnings, but after struggling to achieve an engineering degree and through an abusive marriage, she made it big via Miss America pageantry, where she met David (some 30-ish years her senior).  David's empire is so lucrative that he played kingmaker and takes personal credit (repeatedly) for winning George W. Bush the presidency ("I'd rather not say, it may not have necessarily been legal"), a decision he does have some apprehension about in hindsight .

The film follows David and Jackie, (and their 8 kids, their nanny, their limo driver and David's adult son who's general manager of Westgate Resorts) through their affluent lives, with a keen focus on David's two biggest projects, his new PH Towers Westgate building, a 52-storey blue glass monolith in Las Vegas, and one of the largest mansions in America, Versailles, a 90,000 square foot dwelling backing onto Disneyworld, modeled after the French Palace of Versailles.  The excesses of David and Jackie's life, and especially their plans for Versailles are so extravagant, so unreal, so inconceivable that it verges on nauseating ("This is what five million dollars worth of marble looks like", Jackie exclaims as she shows their documentary crew their garage filled solely with crated stone).

It begins a story of excess, and then November 2008 occurs, the housing bubble bursts, the mortgage backed securities are seen for the sham they were, and the stock market crashes.  Suddenly Westgate is forced to lay off hundreds upon hundreds of employees, David's refusal to turn over the PH Towers Westgate building to creditors threatening to take down him personally and his entire company (even the rich still want more than they can afford).  It then follows the family and the people around them as they struggle to cope with having to struggle, something which their clearly not used to. 

There's an element of schadenfreude to the Siegal's story, a tantalizing look at the felling of the mighty, but it's still not easy to watch, especially as they struggle to maintain some semblance of their own normality.  Their nanny's story is the most painful, separated from her own family for more than a decade, having missed out on her son growing up, sending all the money she makes back to the Philippians (and one can surmise she's not rewarded for her dedicated and tireless service particularly well), straining to find some comfort in the family she's made having taken the lead in raising the Siegal's kids (Jackie is not an absent mother by any stretch, but even she acknowledges that she wouldn't have had more than two had she not had nannies).  Other house staff are not so lucky, as the Siegals pare back 3/4 of their home crew.  The most noticeable effect is not on David, Jackie or the kids (forced to attend public school), but the many, many pets they have.  Lizards die of starvation or dehydration, fish go belly up, and dog crap is, quite literally, everywhere.  More collateral damage from their descent.

During their hardship, only David (and his son) seems truthfully aware of their situation, something Jackie laments late in the film.  "I kind of wish I was more involved, because I'm not a stupid person," Jackie notes, upon learning from the crew that Versailles in foreclosure, "but when you don't have the information, it makes you look stupid."  If not told outright, Jackie is made painfully aware that things are not good, yet she proceeds to spend excessively, if only at Wal-Mart.  She buys with reckless abandon, four shopping carts full of duplicate products for Christmas.  When she arrives home, the crew makes a point of showing the new bike she bought carried through a garage filled with other bikes. 

The Siegal's don't seem like bad people, and they seem to have an awareness of how lucky they are to have achieved affluence (despite hardships).  Jackie and David's relationship (as well as David's relationship with the kids) is strained incredibly by Westgate's misfortune and while you don't ever feel particularly bad for them, you don't really feel as good about their situation as you'd think. Yet, I was kind of rooting for David's business to tank completely.  I think Westgate's business practices are at best distasteful and at worst aggressively predatory.  Their tactic is to sell average people luxurious time share properties they can't afford to buy and likely will be unable to use most of the time.  They sell themselves a vision of "helping" these people, but realistically, they're praying upon their desire to taste a bit of affluence they really can't achieve even in this limited regard.  Where a company like Westgate can default on loans and work tricky magic like buying back their own overdue credit for 15million less than it was initially worth, the people who buy into their time shares, the suckers and the rubes who are even more harmed by the recession, are still on the hook, and you can bet Westgate isn't going to let up.  A large part of the company's value is in the "balance owing".

The coda to the film still inferred the Siegals were struggling, but a web search shows that Westgate has recovered, turning record profits, and that David is pursuing the completion of Versailles (as well as a couple of lawsuits against the filmmakers).  It's a fascinating doc, a rich character study, as well as a unique perspective of the 2008 market downfall and its aftereffects.  The doc originally started out as a borderline Real Housewives/Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but it transcends its vapid origins tenfold into something brilliant.