Throughout Lauren Greenfield’s charming, yet dispiriting, film, The Queen of Versailles, I couldn’t help but come back to the same thought: Are the kids really all right? As these children, all eight of them, walked around their mansion, aimless as robots, I was horrified about how clueless this young generation will be. Perhaps we can find solace in believing this is just a problem of the rich or a problem of the Siegel family specifically, but to me these wandering children were indicative of an entire culture lost in a Gordian knot of economic heartbreak and over-branded happiness.
The film begins by taking us through the lavish life of the Siegel family. David, the founder of Westgate Resorts, the largest time-share company on the planet and his aging, former trophy wife, Jackie. They have just opened the biggest, baddest, and most expensive building in Las Vegas and are halfway through the construction of a home that purports to be the biggest in the United States. Then, with little apparent notice, the bottom falls out. The 2008 collapse hits no market harder than the time-share industry. David almost immediately begins to struggle. But here’s the kicker, he owes almost as much, relative to his earnings, as the poor souls he’s been duping into purchasing his real estate. David Siegel made his fortune by borrowing from the banks, perhaps believing in the same system that was screwing all of his clients. The second half of the movie shows us David trying to keep his business afloat while Jackie and the family learn to “cope” with a budget.
The tale is exemplary of recent American economic efforts and decisions. As we all know, we were spending way above our means and a select few very intelligent people were getting richer and richer because of it. The intrigue of The Queen of Versailles lay in that David doesn’t seem nearly as sleazy or cunning as the world would have us believe about corporate tycoons. In fact, it seems he’s been duped just like the rest of us. Of course, the dichotomy of this notion comes in the form of his lavish home, his wife, his clueless children, and the poor political decisions he made himself a part of. However, Greenfield suggests that Siegel’s intentions were never really to hurt other people, so much as just continue to build a dream for himself. I’d venture to guess that Siegel would be genuinely hurt thinking of all the others who struggled after the collapse. This is not to say he doesn’t share much of the sociopathic cut-throat nature that has flattened our society into a pancake sandwich of McDonald’s and Exxon.
Jackie is really the center of the film but, unfortunately, she doesn’t have much to do. Greenfield’s portrayal of her and her family seems far more like a twisted version of Real Housewives of Orlando than biting non-fiction. She talks, often, superficially about her past, her dreams, how hard she’s worked, etc. Nothing, to me, resonated. I got the feeling that Greenfield felt more sympathy for Jackie than for David, yet David’s situation, in all it’s emasculating, past-macho bravura, felt more honest and understandable. His growing disinterest in the camera being around only intensified the enormous gravity he started to feel about his situation. This is something I never felt about Jackie. In attempting to explore Jackie’s place as a trophy wife, in hopes that audiences might feel for her, I think the result was more insulting than insightful.
This is not to say the film doesn’t succeed on multiple levels. As a metaphor for our times and a colorful character piece, The Queens of Versailles, had more layers than almost anything I’ve seen all year. The problem is that Greenfield loved her characters a little too much, even when there wasn’t anything for them to do. I couldn’t help but feel mystified at why the revelation that Jackie knew so little about how much money was at stake was held until the very end. I suppose the idea was to make this an “A-ha” moment, for us to feel like Jackie was behind a curtain of dreams. But there was poop on the floor and clearly no money coming into the house. She seemed like a mindless blowhard through half of the film. How could she not know what was happening? Are we actually supposed to let her off the hook now? Had this bite come earlier in the piece, we would have been horrified by her decisions, understanding that she simply was hidden from the truth. This storytelling choice was compounded by the decision to tell us so little about the specifics of Westgate’s collapse. Had the financial crisis been clearer, and its lack of clarity to Jackie been obvious, then the film might have had more potency.
Stylistically, The Queens of Versailles, is immensely disappointing. Unlike David LaChappelle’s astonishingly photographed feature, Rize, Greenfield (also a photographer) keeps the camera stilted and almost turned away from poetic images. The few moments where Greenfield’s photography appears on-screen are breaths of fresh air between the talking head interviews and reality TV, capture-what-you-can, direct cinema. In these photos, we get glimpses of a family desperately trying to feign happiness, but unable to hide the glimmer of sadness sunken under each eye. These are robots and the handful of photographs speak to that in spades.
As a 40-minute short film, The Queens of Versailles, is Oscar material. But the thin storytelling, repetition, uninspired visuals, and occasionally poor narrative choices do not justify the 100-minute runtime. By the time the film was over, I knew I needed to think about saving money a little better. I also got to laugh at a few rich people. I didn’t get the resonance that hit me about the state of our world the way I did with such films as Inside Job and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The kids are robots and according to The Queens of Versailles, they are miles away from being “all right.” [B]