...With Sundance’s excellent reputation for supporting serious factual filmmaking, the strength of the documentary programme came as little surprise.
Among the pick of the crop was The Queen of Versailles, a riotously engaging depiction of the capitalist ouroboros, in its way one of the best films yet to have materialized from the global financial crisis. Like many surprising documentaries, it owes some of its success to chance. In 2007, Lauren Greenfield started filming the seventy-four-yearold “timeshare king”, David Siegel, and his improbably bosomed forty-three-year-old wife, Jackie, as they began construction on the “biggest house in America”. Modelled on the chateau at Versailles, which the impressionable couple fell in love with during a visit to France, this Florida monstrosity was designed as 90,000 square feet of multi-roomed, marbled splendour, built primarily, in the words of David, “because I can”. At the film’s start, the palace is still a shell. “This is the staircase I’d go up if I was to visit the children”, Jackie tells a friend. Back at their already generous mansion, we meet the Siegels’ eight young children, twenty Hispanic staff and countless tiny leaking dogs. It is a cutaway paradise. As David declaims from his throne about business, money and his role as a kingmaker (“I personally got George W. Bush elected”), and his wife muses on her past as a former Mrs Florida, the lens wanders around the swollen treasure trove with its hideous stuffed pets, heroic pastel portraits and cornucopia of stuff. Greenfield’s access to the family is extraordinary, her method patient, her eye playful. “I have a $17,000 pair of”, says Jackie as the camera tilts towards her décolletage, “shoes”. We get a strong sense of David’s interest in money for its own sake. “I couldn’t care about material things”, he says and we almost believe him: it is abstract numbers that really seem to get him going. We witness the hard sell of the time-share empire, a machine built on the dream of living, however briefly, “like a Rockefeller”. David’s eldest son, Richard, fires up his sales team. “We’re here to save lives”, he tells them. “You’re just like doctors.” Customers are snapping up future vacations and life is good. David has built an enormous new tower in Las Vegas. The Siegels are “on top of the world”. Then Lehman Brothers implodes.
Greenfield could not have asked for a better plot twist. Revelling in the vérité, she presents both a portrait and an allegory. The Siegels are the ultimate illustrations of the instability of an economy built on cheap credit. Both David and his clients were “addicted”. Already worth billions, he mortgaged his personal properties to buy more. Even his chauffeur once owned nineteen houses. But David put aside nothing for the kids’ college fund and now he refuses to shoulder responsibility. “I’m at the mercy of the bankers”, he shrugs. “The lenders were pushers”, whines his son. Seven thousand staff are made redundant. His kids are hoiked out of private school and his domestic workforce is drastically reduced. Dog dirt accumulates on the Persian rugs and tensions start to build. Sometimes the material seems too perfect to be true. Forced to rent a car at humble Hertz, Jackie asks, to the receptionist’s bemusement, “What’s my driver’s name?”.
David is stubborn. If he accepted his losses on Versailles and Las Vegas, he could still get out intact. But he refuses to do so and suffers for it. “He’s humbled”, says Jackie, adding hopefully, “the stress has made us stronger”. David is not so sure. “Do you get strength from your marriage?”, he is asked. “No, not really.” The timeshare king is unable to rein in his wife’s spending. Between the botox and the beluga, he shouts at her to save electricity: “We need to live within our means”. Greenfield has given her subject plenty of rope to hang himself and he gruffly obliges, snapping at his needy wife, ignoring his children, saving his love for the dogs. When Sundance premiered the film in January, David immediately sued. His gripe was less the unflattering portrayal than the implications of Versailles’s foreclosure. “It’s just one more effort to ridicule and humiliate the 1 per cent”, he protested.
One of Greenfield’s chief successes is to locate the humanity beneath the hubris and the ribaldry, doubtless a reason for her winning the Best Documentary Director award at the January festival. We perceive it, in flashes, when David talks about his parents and his children, and more fully in Jackie, with her doting maid, her charity auctions, her need to be adored. This “hostess with the two mostest” is no Marie Antoinette. “I used to clean dead people in the nursing home”, she comments before assuring us, almost modestly, that she’d be happy in a “three-hundred-thousand dollar home”. Jackie’s main problem is that she has become divorced from reality. She quips that she’ll need to watch the film “to find out what is happening in my life”. The same could be said of the pre-crisis banking industry. Anyone involved in that fiasco would benefit from watching The Queen of Versailles....