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Film Review

Queen of Versailles

The 2008 financial meltdown, brought to you by greedy, reckless, and often criminal behavior by the banks and Wall Street, enabled by captured and feckless regulators, affected nearly every American. Millions lost their jobs and homes, and it may take a generation for the nation to recover. Most of the families who lost their homes were working or middle class, but sometimes even the one per centers were caught. In 2007, Lauren Greenfield, a photographer and award winning documentary film maker ("kids + money", "Thin", etc), began filming David and Jackie Siegel, a wealthy couple living in Orlando, as they were building a huge house, and continued filming for three years.

Greenfield's film, "Queen of Versailles", opens with David Siegel, sitting in an ornate gilded Rococo throne, with Jackie on his lap. He looks fit, tanned, bushy grey hair, and she is deeply tanned, blonde, slightly zaftig, with huge breasts spilling out of her low cut blouse. She is David's third wife, 30 years younger than he, and they have 7 children. The camera pans around to show their opulent, over decorated house, which is overrun by her small white dogs, who poop inside, but cleaned by a staff of 21. The Siegels are relaxed on camera, and each tells the camera how much they love each other, punctuated by kisses. She talks about the cost of her clothes, which makes Imelda Marcos look frugal. Although they both are content with their current house, they are building another, 90,000 square feet, the largest in America. When asked why, David says "because he can". When we first see the new house it is half compete, with no workman around. Construction has temporarily stopped and it has a forlorn abandoned look. The camera follows Jackie as she shows a friend through. The friend remarks on the size of her bedroom but Jackie tells her that that is to be her closet. She points to huge crates of polished marble, which she explains is a million dollars worth of marble intended for the floors. At a later point in the film we see their warehouse, which is holding furniture and statuary intended for the new house. Of course their current house is filled with similar furniture and objects, all ornate and hopelessly gaudy. By this point they seem like caricatures of some Fox television series, and we feel contempt and anger at such tasteless and crass displays of wealth and excess.

But things are not what they seem. Both came from working class backgrounds, and both remember their childhoods well. David became very wealthy by pioneering time share resorts, and now has 26 across America, including an enormous hotel in Las Vegas that has just opened. We see some telling footage of his sales people being motivated by David's son and follow them as they sell the vision of one week a year of pretend wealth to "Walmart families" (David's words). But the crash brought sales to a screeching halt, and the banks began pressing for payments, threatening foreclosure of his hotels. His empire began to collapse, which is why we see his new house half finished and nearly abandoned. They do cut back on their living style: gone are the jets and limos, and the expensive shopping sprees. David is close to tears when he talks about having to fire his employees. Jackie seems able to handle this crisis better than David, and remains calmer and much more centered than her husband, who has sunk into depression. Although she has occasional shopping binges at Toys R Us, she begins cooking again and even gives a small Christmas party. Her children handle this less well: most are spoiled and bratty. But a strange thing happens about two thirds of the way through the film: we begin to feel a sense of admiration for how Jackie is dealing with this, and sympathy for the family. She remains upbeat and generous, sending an old high school friend $5000 in an attempt to halt the foreclosure of her friend's house. So a couple who begin looking like something out of a Diane Arbus photograph, turn into something entirely different. Jackie keeps on trucking, and will not be deterred. We see an American tragedy here, and a powerful metaphor for our country today. There is a complexity and richness to "Queen of Versailles" that is not evident from the trailers. I loved the humanity of this film, and left very impressed with Greenfield's work. She is a documentary film maker to be watched. Playing at the Embarcadero, the Rafael in Marin, and the Shattuck in Berkeley. 100 minutes. Ciao, Ian PS: Don't confuse this film with "Farewell, My Queen", which I also loved.

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