Who would have thought that the best comedy of the summer would be a documentary?
Sure enough, Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles” captures billionaire trophy wife Jackie Siegel in all of her ridiculousness. As if her endless supply of busty hooker outfits for every situation weren’t hysterical enough, Greenfield’s camera always seems to catch her at her best. Or at her worst, depending on your point of view.
She talks about her obscenely ostentatious new home – which, at 90,000 square feet, is the largest in America – as if it’s a shack, always craving more. She says that once she realized she could hire nannies to take care of her children for her, she decided she wanted to have seven kids! She’s the E! reality show character who is too good to be true … but she is!
However, her antics aren’t played solely for “Real Housewives”-style humor; rather, Greenfield uses Jackie as an extreme case to test just how far our notions of the American Dream can extend. Because by all means, she is living it. From tenement to mansion is the essence of upward mobility, and Jackie’s transition from modest suburban upbringing to her own private Versailles epitomizes the American ideal. With a little humility, she could be the poster-child for the American dream.
“The Queen of Versailles” is a powerful examination of the rags-to-riches narrative that dominates our societal mythology, inverting the usually narrative of the Horatio Alger myth by only briefly touching on the rags and focusing predominantly on what the Siegels do with their riches. We enter the movie with their financial situation untouchable as they zoom around on their private jet, staff 19 people at their tiny 26,000 square foot house, and hubristically begin construction on a palace to rival Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Then, “Inside Job” happens. The housing bubble bursts, the market drops, and the credit supply shrinks to almost nothing, leaving the Siegel Manor stalled while still in construction. And very quickly, the Siegels go from being the poster-children of the American Dream to becoming its most high-profile victims. After all, we are always taught that our ambition should have no limits – but what if that ambition greatly exceeds your means?
No one told Jackie and David Siegel to dial down their dreams, even as their economic conditions just get worse by the minute. Jackie keeps insisting that they are going to finish Versailles, just as Westgate Resorts mogul David refuses to let go of his crowning achievement, the massive PH Towers in Las Vegas. Giving up on both projects is the simplest answer because it would alleviate almost all the other financial distress in their life … but it would also mean admitting that they can no longer afford to finance their dreams and that like Icarus, they flew too close to the sun and found the upper limit on ambition.
Really, the reluctance to admit failure is no different than Ben Affleck spurns the idea of selling his Ferarri and giving up the country club membership in “The Company Men.” What Greenfield is showing us in “The Queen of Versailles” is how the OTHER other half lives during the recession. Just subtract a few zeros from their bank statement and very little separates them from an average American family; their problems are just a magnified, super-sized version of what many others are currently facing. They can’t get credit, In spite of all they have, Greenfield actually allows you to start feeling some sympathy for the Siegels. Jackie starts fretting about the future of her children in a sincere, heartfelt way…
…only to then say, “I told the kids they might have to go to college now, so start thinking about what you want to be when you grow up,” and buy six carts of toys at Wal-Mart, squelching that tiny bit of sympathy. You can choose to pity the Siegels or scoff at them for thinking they know what the recession feels like, and Greenfield’s ambiguous verdict just makes the documentary all the more potent. As thoughtful as it is thought-provoking, “The Queen of Versailles” rules the summer … and maybe even the year. A /