Is being in the 1% all that it's cracked up to be? Not if you're billionaires Jackie and David Siegel, building America's largest home in 2007 and so self-absorbed that they have it documented by director Lauren Greenfield. What started out as an exposè on outlandish wealth, ended up becoming a portrait of demise as the financial crisis intervened.
David (74 years old) made his fortune in Westgate Resorts, a time-share business that soared, employing the predatory practice of giving easy credit to unsuspecting clients. He's proud of his humble beginnings and even more so of his solid affiliation with the Republican Party. Bragging that he got George W. Bush elected, David admits it wasn't completely legal.
Jackie (39 years old), too, came from modest stock and was a former model. She's clearly quite happy being the aging trophy wife with monstrous cleavage and a passion for shopping. It's just that their 26,000-square-foot home doesn't cut it. The couple decides to build the ultimate house modeled after the Versailles Palace (90,000 square feet which is larger than The White House). When asked why so extravagant, David quips, "because I could" and Jackie comments, "he deserves it."
But when easy access to cheap money came to a grinding halt, David's business went south, causing construction on Versailles to be put on hold. David blamed the bankers, equating them to "pushers," luring people like him into becoming addicts to cheap credit. The Siegel's lives are drastically altered. Having to dismiss most of the help, their home turns into a disaster area. It's as though you're suddenly watching an episode of "Hoarding." The floors are covered in dog excrement and rooms are full of bikes, toys and unopened boxes of Walmart purchases.
Through all of it, Jackie keeps her head up and her sense of humor in tact. But she has a severe lack of self-awareness, and grasp of the big picture. She honestly thought that the federal bailout was for "the common people, us." The naiveté she displays is actually quite amusing at times. When having to pick up a rental car, she asks the clerk what the driver's name is.
Documentarian Greenfield ("Thin") lucked out when the direction of her film shifted. Most importantly, the Siegels agreed to let her continue filming as their lives unraveled. What may have been an empty Kardashian-like caper became a deep, insightful look into the American Dream.
"The Queen of Versailles" is an extraordinary and entertaining documentary. Greenfield could have gone for the jugular by exploiting the rich but chose instead to inject empathy and pathos into her film. She managed to win the Directing Award this year at the Sundance Film Festival and deservedly so.
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