THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES
Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Screenwriter: Lauren Greenfield
Cast: David Siegel, Jackie Siegel
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 6/22/12
Opens: July 20, 2012
In May of this year Charles Hopper, a 63-year-old former CEO of Lehman Brothers, hanged himself in the garage of his Connecticut home. What? A guy making well over one million dollars annually is depressed? Turns out that he had a problem: not an emotional problem or marriage dilemma but a MONEY problem. How does a guy with this kind of salary wind up owing? Look to the effects of the 2008 stock market crash and housing bust. .” A graphic example of this riches to rags theme can be seen in Lauren Greenfield’s doc, “The Queen of Versailles.” The two principals, especially the male, are uncompromisingly honest about their views notwithstanding how their commentary damage.
Lauren Greenfield hones in on David and Jackie Siegel, he 74, she 43, and their eight kids and Filipina housekeeper. Her film becomes what is probably the best example of conspicuous consumption by a private family ever. David Siegel, though never saying he expected to win a placement in the Guinness Book of World Records, is intent on building what is officially called the largest home under one roof in America, covering 90,000 square feet with some 10 kitchens and 30 bedrooms (or is it bathrooms)? The bathrooms are needed not because the family eat high-fiber foods but because of the lavish parties they sponsor, including one in which the entire corps of fifty candidates for Miss America show up to party. The home is modeled on the Versailles Palace, the very one featured in the recent pic “Farewell, My Queen.”
Greenfield, whose previous doc “Thin,” looks at four anorexics in South Florida, notes that the Siegels have a pet tiger and a lion, which we do not see, but we do get a look at their lizard (died of dehydration by an uncaring teen), a python, a brood of Spitz dogs, a Maltese, all of whom are responsible for globs of poop scattered about the residence, picked up by the maid.
But when the bust comes in 2008—market collapse, housing bubble burst—the time share vacation estates which made the Siegels rich become a burden as David is unable to pay off the “cheap money” he got from banks to make him a billionaire. One gets the impression that he may have put as little as ten percent down with the best coming from the banks: that all his wealth is tied up in buildings, not cash. As a result of the financial crash, Siegel had to lay off 6,000 employees and ultimately sell off a large Las Vegas building which he used as the corporate headquarters of his vast empire.
At this point, the marriage (David’s third) begins to collapse. We watch with sympathy (or schadenfreude, depending on your ideology) as a capitalist hero who claims responsibility for President Bush’s election victory, slowly falls apart to such an extent that he insists that all lights be turned off in his current residence as he may not have the money to pay the electric bills. Feeling sorry for himself, he charges his wife, a former Mrs. Florida who divorced her first husband for abuse, with not appreciating the empire he built for her. You can’t blame him, because despite the financial crisis that the family are in, she continues to spend money, loading a shopping cart to the brim with toys for the eight children. Jackie dominates the chatter while David, a workaholic, gives the impression of being more down-to-earth as he sits in his chair gently explaining to us in the audience what is bothering him. Like Willy Loman, but in much more epic terms, he is a victim of the loss of the American Dream.
Tom Hurwitz’s camera slides about the corridors, taking in even the most seemingly confidential conversations between David and family. Among the humorous intervals is a pep talk by David’s son, a high-level executive in the business, telling his sales staff that the time shares are saving lives because, he insists, people who do not take even one vacation a year will die of stress-related heart attacks. The doc is an original.
Rated PG. 100 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-