“The Bluth family is alive and active in Orlando.”
That’s the thought I couldn’t help but keep returning to throughout The Queen of Versailles. This documentary either demonstrates that the writers of Arrested Development were even more insightful and incisive about the thought processes of the rich than I thought, or that the rich have reached a level of inhumanity that has rendered the show’s satire prophetic. Arrested Development, in fact, is the perfect descriptor for these people, who seem to have had all ability to function as human beings crippled by being able to satisfy their every whim.
If such a whim happens to be to build a 90,000-foot replica of the Versailles Palace to serve as your home? Then so be it. That’s exactly what David and Jackie Siegel set out to do. And they would have succeeded, to boot, if the economic collapse hadn’t shot David’s time-share empire out from under him. Their riches-to-rags story isn’t as drastic as the Bluths’; instead of moving into a model home, they just have to downsize their household staff from seventeen to four. Jackie, though, has trouble adjusting to this new reality, and her idea of “cutting back” involves buying hundreds of toys at Walmart in lieu of a more upscale vendor.
Jackie herself, the namesake queen, is a wretchedly pitiful figure. She was once a fiercely independent and intelligent woman, a computer engineer with a degree from RIT. Then she quit that job to become a model, and caught the attention of David, a billionaire with love in his heart and a vacant showing-off spot on his elbow. Now Jackie seems more like a doll than anything else, and not just because her ability to move and emote is restricted by grotesque plastic surgery. She seems to understand, if only at a subconscious level, that her (EIGHT!) children are awful, her husband cares for nothing but managing his disintegrating company, and her entire lifestyle is hollow.
David, on the other hand, exemplifies the “boring psycho” Republican power player, as In the Loop calls it. He outright states that his status is only thing that matters to him. That’s why he stubbornly refuses to unload a Las Vegas tower that he sunk four hundred million of his own dollars into, even though doing so could potentially let him salvage his company. That’s why he won’t sell the half-finished Versailles homunculus. Doing so would be an admission of weakness. Once he bragged about putting Bush in the White House, the asswipe. Now he mourns falling in love with “cheap money,” and letting it get the better of him.
The first quarter or so of the film is a testament to that American Illusion. It’s every bling-obsessed MTV reality show combined into one and pumped full of steroids, an unbelievable display of excess, from Jackie’s seemingly Tribble-replicating army of dogs to the jaw-dropping sweep of the in-progress Versailles clone. In my years of watching documentaries, I have seen a man hammer a nail through his penis. I would rather watch that again than this ugly showcase of one-percenter supervillainy.
That first section might be unbearable if it weren’t for the fall of that lifestyle that comes after. Even then, though, it’s still an awfully hard to watch film. There’s plenty of humor to be found in the Siegels’ situation, both legitimate and Schadenfreude. But I can’t keep laughing when David’s grown son from a previous marriage casually talks about how he feels no love from his father, and that their relationship is solely business-based.
I’m unsure of how much we’re supposed to sympathize with the Siegels versus how much the doc wants us to empathize with them. The message seems to be “see, the rich are like us!” Um, I’m trying to hold down an apartment, car, and student loans. Sorry you went from billionaires to just millionaires, guys. I can’t really see them as human, and since a lot of the movie shows how inhumane they are, it’s something of a failure to ask the audience to relate to them. We see Siegel’s underlings convince people who can’t afford time-shares to buy in. How can I view him as anything but a sociopathic parasite after that?
What photographer-turned-director Lauren Greenfield has done here is craft a keen allegory for America itself in this economic crisis. She finds the universal core in the Siegels’ specific story and expands it to encompass the society that created them. Our nation was in love with wealth, in love with status, in love with money, and believed itself able to do anything, and found itself willing to do anything, for no other reason than it could. And then it all fell apart. But the tragedy is that we still think all of those things about ourselves, even though reality says something quite different.
The Siegels probably won’t ever have to escape prison, open a banana stand, or have other such wacky adventures, but the likelihood of ever completing their Versailles is nil. And yet David and Jackie cling like grim death to that skeleton of a house. The fact that they’re holding on to an imitation of a symbol of the folly of the upper class is just one of The Queen of Versailles’s many rich (*ahem*) ironies. Fitzgerald could only hope to come up with such a tale. Although he’d be proud of the doc’s final shot, a beautifully evocative eulogy for the American Myth that I’m not going to spoil. Despite the misplaced trust in its audience’s sympathies, this is a terrific film.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Check out Dan’s website: Day of Docs