Monday, August 6, 2012
Movie Review: The Queen of Versailles
When filming began on TQOV, director Lauren Greenfield thought she would be chronicling the construction of the largest single-family private residence in the country. Inspired by the french palace of King Louis XIV and modeled loosely after the top three floors of the Paris hotel and casino in Las Vegas, the 90,000-square-foot, $75 million home of time share mogul David Seigel and his family would have a bowling alley, a wing for the children, and kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms that would require two hands to count, each.
Would have, that is, if it had ever finished being built.
In one of those magical whimseys of life that can not be planned, Greenfield's camera was perfectly in place to capture the economic collapse of 2008, and the devastating shock-wave that it sent through Siegel's company, Westgate Resorts. Because time shares, like car or home purchases, operate on a money-down-and-monthly-payment format, Siegel found himself with the wold's largest time share company hemorrhaging what little liquid assets it had by the minute. To make maters worse, they company had just finished completion of the PH Westgate Towers in Las Vegas adding one more lump sum into the accountants' ledgers that couldn't be used to pay his staff or his electric bill.
What was intended as a documentary of the wanton excess of a self-made member of the 1% instead pivots after 30 minutes into an examination of what happens when the tables are turned, even if ever so slightly. We watch the stagnation and fat-trimming of Siegel's business and personal wealth as employees are laid off, planes and limousines are put up for sale, properties are foreclosed and then, closer to home, housekeeping staff are let go.
The question then becomes "How do you live within your means when you're not accustomed to your means having limits?" and the personification of that question is Siegel's wife, former beauty queen Jackie Siegel, the Queen of Versailles.
It's hard to not feel an overdose os schadenfreude as you watch Jackie squirm in her new life. It's almost surreal to watch the dumbfounded reaction of the Hertz rent-a-car employee when Jackie asks "What's my driver's name?" or the ineptitude of the family at keeping a tidy home after the staff are let go. General litter and droppings from the family near-dozen yippee dogs cover the home's entire floor and at one point Jackie says to the camera, without the slightest hint of sarcasm or irony "I wouldn't have had so many kids if I couldn't have maids."
At first it's bizarre and funny but it quickly becomes something else as David Siegel seems to age right in front of your eyes, weighed down by the burden of keeping his company and life afloat as he struggles to hold on to his two prized possessions: the Las Vegas towers and his unfinished Versailles. You watch him wincing in pain, pleading with his family to cut back as his wife continues to live the remnants of their lush lifestyle, pillaging 6 carts worth of Christmas presents from Walmart and stopping in at the doctors for a quick injection of botox.
It's impossible to feel sorry for these people, even though they are, all things considered, very decent human beings. Both husband and wife grew up in poverty and despite their successes you can still see that trace of their former lives (like when Jackie takes the limousine through the McDonald's drive in) but just when empathy begins creeping in, the director interviews the family's loyal maid who is overjoyed to claim an unused play-house as her private space and sends the majority of her wages home to help her family. The director never quite lets you escape the knowledge that even with nothing, this family has more than you could ever dream of.
In the end we watch as patriarch David, who not so long ago was boasting of single-handedly getting Bush 43 into the white house (he doesn't elaborate because his actions may or may not have been illegal) and building the country's largest resident "Because I can." In the end, he talks about how his story is a Riches to Rags, expresses his exhaustion and asks the interviewer if they can "wrap things up" already. It is a fascinating look at just what money can buy, and just how much it can cost. B+