A Few Words About “The Queen of Versailles”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just published its list of the 15 Documentaries from which it will choose the 5 Oscar™ nominees. I have seen very few of them, although I have now made it my mission to watch as many of them as are currently available on DVD or through Netflix’s instant queue. Next week I will get to see The House I Live In at a special “Friends of the Maryland Film Festival” screening, hosted by former mayor Kurt Schmoke, which should be great.

But right now I am just a little confused as to why The Queen of Versailles did not make it on to the shortlist. Was it because of the lawsuit filed against the filmmaker by one of its subjects? Who knows?! In any case, it is too bad. There are other films on the list that are, I am sure, quite good, but this just happened to be one of the best documentaries I have seen in a while.

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The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)

This is a film about David and Jackie Siegel. He is the founder and owner of Westgate Resorts, the largest timeshare company in the world (according to its own PR), and she is his gregarious free-spending wife. When the director, Lauren Greenfield, began filming the couple, in 2007, their lives were more than secure and comfortable: they were living the American dream. But then the financial crisis hit us in 2008, and their fortunes took a decided turn for the worse. Their troubles are a filmmaker’s boon – the movie is a fascinating portrait of the downside of opulence.

If it were just an exercise in schadenfreude, however, the film would not be that exceptional. What I loved about this movie is that Greenfield takes the time to build complex portraits of both David and Jackie, even though they both could easily devolve into caricature. After all, David is a man who claims to have singlehandedly stolen the election for George Bush in Florida in 2000, and Jackie is a woman who, when renting a car for the first time in years, asks what her driver’s name is (there is no driver provided at airport rental outlets, in case you were wondering).

But Greenfield shows us the Siegel’s humanity, too. Jackie has a genuine love of life, and can be generous (if also self-indulgent). She loves her kids, even if raising them without a nanny poses a challenge. She has even taken in a niece whose parents abandoned her. When that niece accidentally starves a pet lizard to death, you sense Jackie’s real horror (and see what a metaphor it is for their down-spiraling fortunes). As a woman who started from modest means and only later married rich, Jackie has at least managed to avoid looking down on others less fortunate than herself.

David’s no prince, but he’s likewise presented as a flesh-and-blood man, conservative to the core, often selfish, but also capable of real feeling. I would never want to know him in real life, but I didn’t hate him as I watched the film.

In fact, the real strength of the film is the way in which the filmmaker presents the Siegels as so ordinary in their tastes and extravagances that they could really be any of us, if we were likewise given the opportunity. True, I wouldn’t build a Versailles replica, but who is to say that my own excesses wouldn’t be equally as repulsive to others.

The film is a true testament to our simultaneously gilded and spoiled age.

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