The Queen of Versailles

November 27th, 2012

Ever since the global financial industry went kaput in the fall of 2008, the 99% have been an enraged lot. The Occupy Wall Street movement showed this chasm in its starkest hue. But are the 1% really to be reviled this much? This borderline-blasphemous thought struck me after watching the harrowing-but-oh-so-beautiful documentary called The Queen of Versailles.

In 2007, Lauren Greenfield chose to document the riches of David Siegel, a time-sharing mogul, the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts. The time-sharing model works like this: Imagine a wonderful apartment in a place of your choice that you can  use for the same week of every year for a token amount. Siegel tapped this middle-class American ambition to create what eventually proved to be a Frankenstein’s monster.

In the man’s own words, he was given “cheap money”, which is the junk bonds dressed up attractively. Like a junkie, he also says he was “pushed” into building more resorts, of which the neo-plus ultra would be in Las Vegas.

Greenfield was initially supposed to document this decadence in a hagiographic manner but then she struck gold in 2008. What helped her wonderful documentary is Siegel’s trophy wife, Jacqueline Siegel, a former Miss Florida, and her love for extreme luxuries. Jackie, as she would be referred to in the docu, is really the lynchpin.

The title derives from the massive mansion that the Siegels were building on 90,000 sq ft land in Orlando, which is inspired from the palace in Versailles, France. The initial half-an-hour is a romp and charts out the lavish lifestyle of the Siegels. David talks how he got George Bush re-elected and how Donald Trump and he are chummies. But things get really interesting when the family is pushed into an austerity drive. The kids go to public school and the support staff gets reduced. There’s unattended dog poop all over. Greenfield’s camera just creeps under the viewer’s skin.

There’s a very evocative scene where one of the seven kids asks his mother after their first public airline trip, “Who are these people on the plane travelling with us?”. The triumph of The Queen of Versailles is how humane the people come across as.

At the near end of the docu, David says that he is not happy with his marriage and that having a wife is a bit “like raising a child”. Watch The Queen of Versailles to know how the grass on the other side is no more greener, while Greenfield is busy fighting a defamation suit from David.

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