Harvest uptown, famine downtown: The Queen of Versailles **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2012)


(*Sigh*) Mon Dieu, I hate being so right all the time. Several weeks ago, in my review of Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen (a drama centered on intrigue in the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI at Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution), I wrote:

It’s nearly impossible to observe the disconnect of these privileged aristocrats carrying on in their gilded bubble while the impoverished and disenfranchised rabble sharpen up the guillotines without drawing parallels with our current state of affairs (history, if nothing else, is cyclical).

Which reminds me of a funny story. In Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, The Queen of Versailles, billionaire David Siegel (aka “The Timeshare King”) shares an anecdote about his 52-story luxury timeshare complex on the Vegas strip (the PH Towers Westgate). In 2010, Donald Trump called him and said, “Congratulations on your new tower! I’ve got one problem with it. When I stay in my penthouse suite, I look out the window and all I see is ‘WESTGATE’. Could you turn your sign down a little bit?” (And you thought that the rich never suffered?) Oh, he’s got a million of ‘em.

However, Mr. Siegel isn’t the sole subject of Greenfield’s study. A good portion of screen time is hijacked by his wife. To say Jackie Siegel (possibly the love child of Joanna Lumley and Tammy Faye) “really knows how to light up a room” would be an understatement. Her most amusing anecdote? “The first time I ever took the boys on a commercial plane, they said: ‘Mommy! What are all these people doing on our plane?!’” OMG! That is so hi-lair-ious!

Now, lest you begin to think that it’s all about chewing the fat and towel-snapping shenanigans around the mansion with the Siegels, their eight kids, nanny, cook, maids, chauffeur and (unknown) quantity of yippy, prolifically turd-laying teacup dogs…there is a sobering side to this tale. Now, I hope you’re sitting down, and I don’t want you to take this too hard (I’m bravely fighting back tears as I write this), but it seems that even this family of means has not been immune from hardships in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis (I know-it’s so tragic). This “riches to rags” theme provides fuel for Greenfield’s film (or…Citizen Kane meets The Beverly Hillbillies).

The family’s ensuing “sacrifices” provide a succession of reality TV moments. Jackie is doing her Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart (the humanity!); David is losing his shit over lights being left on in the house, and so on. You know, they’re just everyday folks like you and me, worrying about the bills and feeding the kids . The elephant in the room is the family’s unfinished Orlando, Florida mansion, the infamous “largest home in America”, a 90,000 square foot behemoth inspired by the palace at Versailles. Drama arises when the bank threatens to foreclose on it, along with the PH Towers Westgate. So does the family end up living in cardboard boxes? I’m not telling.

This is a slickly produced film, yet it left me ambivalent;  it wasn’t particularly enlightening. I suppose one can wallow in the schadenfreude (obviously, I did), but that’s still not enough to carry the 100 minute running time. The problem is that regardless whether they are down to their last red cent or have 500 million in the bank, these people are not very interesting. They have little to offer beyond the glorified banality of puffed-up Lotto winners.

Then again, maybe that’s the point of the film-money can’t buy you charisma. Apparently, however, it can buy you a POTUS. When Siegel boasts that he was “personally responsible” for the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the director asks him to elaborate. “I’d rather not say,” he replies, “…because it may not necessarily have been legal.” Any further thoughts? “Had I not stuck my big nose into it, there probably would not have been an Iraqi War, and maybe we would have been better off…I don’t know.”

Now that is “rich”.

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