Friday, August 17, 2012

Queen of Versailles (opens in Cleveland August 17th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre)

[QUEEN OF VERSAILLES opens in Cleveland on Friday August 17th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

When we first meet husband and wife David and Jacqueline Siegel in the documentary QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, it's 2007 and the couple are riding high. David heads up the largest privately held time share company in the world, Westgate Resorts. When asked why he is building a 90,000 square foot home modeled on the French palace at Versailles that, when finished, will be the largest house in the United States, he answers smugly, “Because I can.” Jacqueline, or Jackie as she prefers, is a former beauty queen whose reasons for the new house are slightly more pragmatic. She explains that her family, which includes eight children (one an adopted cousin), is simply “bursting out at the seams” in their present 26,000 square foot domicile. Hey, we all have problems.

Then the financial crisis of 2008 hits, and David's company is suddenly in trouble. Also in jeopardy is the new house, which was paid for in cash and then mortgaged to finance a huge resort in Las Vegas, also now in trouble. It might be tempting to say that the Siegels are only getting what they deserve, but the sad fact is those who suffer the most are the people they employ. Westgate ends up laying off 7000 people, and the staff of nannies, maids, and other servants at the Siegel's house is reduced considerably, as well.

The other thing is, the Siegel's don't come across as horrible evil rich people. Okay, maybe David a little, at least when he does things like brag about being getting George W. Bush elected, going on to say he can't explain further because what he did might not have been completely legal. That aside, though, both David and Jackie came from fairly rough backgrounds and had to work hard to get where they are. David sincerely believes that everyone who has known him or worked for him is better for it, and he may well be right, while Jackie seems like a warm, sincere person who lives her kids. The problem is that the Siegel's wealth has distanced them from where they started and given them a distorted view of reality.

The film follows the family for roughly five years as David tries to save his two dream projects. Meanwhile Jackie and the kids have to make sacrifices like flying on commercial instead of private jets. It's during this period that you can really see how out of touch they've become. At one point Jackie goes to rent a car from Hertz and asks what the name of her driver is. She's not stupid; she's just so been so far removed from the world most people live in for so long that she doesn't know any better. For his part, David seems intent on blaming all his problems on the bankers. To be sure, the bankers bear some responsibility, but the excuse that they got him hooked on cheap loans that he couldn't say no to just doesn't wash.

Some of the most emotionally compelling moments in the film aren't with the Siegels, however, but with their mostly Phillipino help. One nanny in particularly relates the heartbreaking story of how she had to leave her own children behind so she could make enough money to give them a better life, but in doing so she missed out on getting to know them. She also talks about her father, whose dream was simply to one day own a house made out of concrete. The closest he ever came was a concrete tomb.

QUEEN OF VERSAILLES could very easily have been on the level of your typical reality show about eccentric rich folks, and there are moments in the film that certainly remind one of The Osbournes and the like (what is it about rich people having too many dogs and letting them crap in the house?). Due to the unexpected effects of the financial crisis on its subjects, however, director Lauren Greenfield was able to get at something deeper and even offer up some valuable lessons. That said, in shaping her film to fit a particular viewpoint, Greenfield leaves some of the questions viewers will likely want answered unresolved, most notably the ultimate fate of the Versailles house. Regardless, the film is both entertaining and enlightening. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

As published on Examiner.com

 

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