[19 July 2012]
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)
“Queen of Versailles” is a documentary that plays like a pilot for a reality TV series. You think the Kardashians are trashy, that “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” was a high-carbon-footprint divorce waiting to happen?
Wait’ll you see see the Siegels of Orlando!
That’s the way Jackie Siegel, the cartoonishly buxom trophy wife of time-share king David Siegel, “plays” this real-woman seemingly ripped from a John Waters movie.
No outfit is too revealing or garish, no part of their crumbling lives of extravagant consumption off limits, no ill-considered opinion, unnecessary purchase or housekeeping failure too gauche to put on display. Where the ’80s gave us “The Queen of Mean,” filmmaker Laura Greenfield holds up, for our entertainment, the Tsarina of Trashy.
With every shopping spree, every limo ride to McDonald’s, Mrs. Siegel underlines the cliche that money cannot buy you taste. Or class.
But “Versailles” reminds us that, in America at least, being ridiculous and ostentatiously tacky is no crime. Having more money than you know how to spend isn’t a cardinal sin — even when you try your darnedest to spend it on “the largest private residence in America,” which the Siegels envisioned as a Vegas variation of the French palace, Versailles.
And blaming the banks for your woes and calling your “Walmart Nation” customers “moochers” is an American right the tacky-rich can claim just as easily as the poor over-extended suckers who made them rich in the first place.
Greenfield’s film started as a mocking portrait of two rich Orlandoans with more money than taste. But as the economy imploded and the Siegels had to put their unfinished $100 million monument to imitation French architecture up for auction, “Queen of Versailles” morphed into something broader. Here it is, the coddled and overextended blaming the system they championed for their ruin.
Following the Siegels for two years, documentarian Greenfield gives us the caricatures of these nouveau riche rubes, and then humanizes them as they are brought low by the forces they relied on to create their obscene wealth.
We meet Siegel, a self-made man who built an empire out of vast time-share condo-hotels all across America, paid for by working-class people who succumb to hard-sell pitches from Siegel’s sales force, “buying” a share of a resort hotel suite in Orlando, Las Vegas, the Smoky Mountains or other vacation spots.
Siegel likes being photographed with famous people, lions and pretty girls. Early on, he boasts that “I personally got” George W. Bush elected, hinting that he may have done something illegal to ensure that. By the end of the film, he’s wistful about the collapse of American credit and what it did to his business, maybe even regretting the bad banking karma his deeds brought on.
Jackie, his shopaholic spouse, granted Greenfield broad access to her being-a-broad lifestyle — wearing fur coats in ski boats, displaying herself and her body in all manner of tacky, cleavage-and-cut-off-shorts outfits and even tackier works of Jackie-inspired “art” throughout their home.
And they hired low-wage English-as-a-second-language immigrant nannies to raise their eight children to be just as vulgar and intellectually limited as they are.
Jackie makes cracks about her much-older hubby not needing Viagra. By film’s end, as the clutter of their lives and the collapse of their business overwhelms their marriage, she’s admitting that like her shopping habits, having children became “an addiction,” and that she wouldn’t have had so many if she’d thought she couldn’t afford Filipino nannies.
But for all the contempt the film invites for the Siegels, the bile never rises to a Trump-level. They’re self-made, so if they self-destruct, there’s poignancy to that. Unlike the rest of the 1percent, the Siegels spend spend spend, their own private stimulus package to the Walmarts and kitsch dealers of America. Ignoring the Siegel employees laid off and playing down the struggling families with timeshares they’ll be paying for on into eternity allows the film to paint the Siegels more as victims than some moments when the predatory nature of the business is laid bare.
Plainly, they’re not idiots. Siegel may not be Wall Street, but he comes off as shrewd enough to play hardball with banks whose lax practices made him rich, and are now making him less so. Jackie got an engineering degree before doing the math that told her modeling, boob jobs and having a sugar daddy paid better.
Greenfield’s film captures a look in Mrs. Siegel’s eyes — a kind of mercenary disappointment with it all. “Is this it?” The Dickensian myth that money buys misery dies hard.
Jackie may show a generous streak, but takes no responsibility for the kids who let their pets starve to death, the herd of dogs she adores but never cleans up after, pets that she then has stuffed or worse when they die.
David’s employee-son from an earlier marriage suggests Dad’s self-absorption and cheapness when it came to that earlier family, and his coldness, even now. Long before they’re bickering over money, David is getting a little too attentive with assorted Miss America candidates visiting their home as Jacki repeats his threat to “trade me in for two 20-year-olds” when she turns 40. This is a trophy that has to worry about tarnish and age.
But any husband or father will recognize the tantrum the suddenly frugal David tosses at lights being left on, doors left open with the air conditioning on.
“Queen of Versailles” veers between mean and patronizing, with a hint of the judgmental in every manifestation of their spendthrift ways.
But even if it never evolves into a reality TV series, even if the Siegels recover their fortunes and inspire a sequel, the object lesson here is inescapable — “The Beverly Hillbillies” were the last frugal rich bumpkins, and they didn’t demand tax breaks to pay off their version of Versailles.
QUEEN OF VERSAILLES
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and language
Cast: David and Jackie Siegel
Credits: Directed by Lauren Greenfeld. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:41