Thursday, February 07, 2013

Queen of Versailles

It's been two years now, but when I was in the beginning stages of the documentary I've been working on, I was trying to explain the way it worked to somebody I was pitching the idea to.

I told them that basically when you go to make a documentary, you go in with an idea of what you want it to be about. You make outlines, you probably write a script. You have this idea of what the story is going to be. And then that all gets thrown completely out the window by the story of what actually happens.

There probably few more perfect examples of this than Queen of Versailles, where director Lauren Greenfield started out making a movie about a couple building the largest private home in America. Then the recession happened.

Greenfield did the best thing she could have done - she kept filming. As real estate mogul David Siegel's financial empire quickly dwindles, Greenfield's camera stays in the house. When they put their unfinished dream home up for sale, Greenfield asks difficult questions and gets realistic and heartfelt answers. There were moments that I began to think might have been staged, but at the same time I don't think that Jackie Siegel was the type of person to go along with staging. When she goes to the Hertz counter to rent a car instead of a limo for the first time, she asks what their driver's name is going to be. The guy at the counter is genuinely confused and doesn't understand what she could possibly mean. A lesser film by a lesser director would have set up things like that, but Greenfield doesn't need to. She just had the good sense to be there and keep the camera rolling.

There are things about Queen of Versailles that are very hard to watch, but not because it's poorly made. It's well structured, and shows a lot of skill from Greenfield and her editor, Victor Livingston. The story becomes this distillation of a typical American story, from rags to riches to rags again. David Siegel has probably never been poor before, but he shows very clearly that he didn't get to be rich by being stupid about money. Though the film doesn't shy away from showing exactly how he got to be rich, which borders on dishonesty in selling time shares to people who probably can't afford them. Part of how his business comes crashing down is that suddenly these couples they've been selling to who couldn't afford the properties in the first place find themselves unable to pay their bills, which leaves Siegel in the same situation.

But the real star of the story is the queen herself, Jackie Siegel. She's oddly likable even as she continues to be so completely clueless about money that you wonder how she's survived so far. Even after they've lost all their money, she continues to overspend and insist on buying extravagant things, getting plastic surgery procedures, buying herself $2,000 worth of caviar for Christmas, and refusing to sell off items that could help them pay for everything. She stands in her living room talking to her son, wearing an expensive fur coat, and he asks the time. She makes a joke about being unable to afford a watch.

The story becomes a strange cautionary tale, without actually being degrading or making fun of the Siegel's it gives a perfect example of some of the worst excesses of American culture. Jackie says that if she knew she wouldn't be able to have as many nannies as she wanted, she wouldn't have had so many kids because they're too much work. On the brink of bankruptcy, David gets upset that Jackie didn't hire a bartender or a server for a Christmas party. Jackie rides around the neighborhood in the back of her limo, discussing the number of foreclosures in her neighborhood with her driver. After they have to let go of most of their household staff, the family quickly finds themselves unable to care for their own home, which Greenfield illustrates with a few too many close-ups of dog feces and a really tragic shot of a dead pet lizard.

It's a movie that at the same time angered me and made me feel sympathetic. The children in the house really do seem just victims of their circumstances, and like they have better heads on their shoulders than the adults. So it's upsetting when Jackie points out that she's had to tell her kids to prepare to go to college and earn their own way and David admits in a separate interview that he hasn't' saved any money for their college tuition and they'll have to go straight to work. Even David's son from a previous marriage, who works for him, points out that except for one year of living with his dad when he was in high school, he hardly got anything from him and was poor most of his life. These people wanted to build a palace, the largest single family home in the country, and neither of them has ever had their own children's interests at heart.

That's probably the biggest tragedy of them all, and the film does a great job at capturing it, even when that wasn't what they set out to do.